For centuries Gardeners around the world have had a love affair with the Dianthus. The perennial Dianthus, especially the Clove Pink, is one of the oldest plants intentionally planted in gardens of antiquity.
In Greek the name means “Heavenly, Divine Flower”. Romans called them “Jove’s Flower”, the flower of God. They made wreaths, garlands and floral crowns from the delicate, clove-scented blooms. They were used to scent water, wine and rendered into volatile oils for perfumes and salves. Petals were often dried or spread fresh for feasts, religious ceremonies and other special events, especially events that were hopefully blessed or otherwise seen favourably by the Gods.
Dianthus was a favourite subject of Flemish painters. The Dianthus in all its glorious forms were very popular in European gardens at that time. During Medieval times they indicated betrothal. In the Victorian language of flowers they represented “pure love”. Throughout this long interval, the Dianthus remained a solid favourite garden flower. Indeed even today, they are considered to be amongst the most highly prised of all garden flowers and are considered one of the classic ‘love flowers’.
North Americans and many European Gardeners consider them a symbol of maternal love, the classic cottage garden flower always found by Grandma’s door, and often give clove pinks as a Mother’s Day gift. In Central Europe and especially the United Kingdom they are the most popular of garden perennials where millions are sold annually.
Passionate Gardeners have bred thousands of hybrid cultivars from the original 300 species including all the double, large-flowered modern Carnations. Dianthus nectar is adored by bees and makes a distinctively aromatic and sweet honey.
The blooms are sometimes eaten, not by insects but by humans! When the bitter white heel of the petal is removed the flowers add a spicy fragrance to delicate dishes, salads, sauces and soups. Dianthus flowers petals are delectable when crystallised as a candy, or when added to syrups, cordials and wines.
Most annual Dianthus chinensis, the Rainbow or Indian Pink; the biennial or semi perennial Dianthus barbatus, the Sweet William, and closely related Dianthus spp, commonly called Sweet Wivelsfield are dwarf, dense, erect or semi mat-forming plants with small sword or spear-shaped rich medium green smooth leaves clothing short wiry stems to 12-18in/30-45cm or less. These annual and biennial species grow a little taller and more willowy than the perennial mat-forming Clove Pinks.
The perennial Dianthus caryophyullus, Clove Pinks, and many related species are dwarf, dense, mat-forming plants with narrow, grassy leaves in green to grey. Clove Pinks and the closely related modern hybrid garden and Chabaud Carnations usually have stiffer, sometimes almost waxy grey-green foliage which often is covered with a whitish bloom. The 7.5cm (3”) flowers of Rainbow/Indian Pinks and Clove Pinks and Garden Carnations smother plants in Spring and Early Summer, with a scattering of blooms sometimes into Autumn.
The Rainbow Pinks are often grown as annuals which produce a spectacular and very colourful array of multi-toned and patterned blooms in a great flush about 10-12 weeks from seed. Once this finishes, the plants are cut back and will repeat flower again a few weeks later. This cutting back and re-flowering can continue for upward of a year to 18 months before the plants are spent or unless killed by freezing weather.
The perennial Dianthus species like the Clove Pinks tend to flower en mass during Mid and Late Spring into Early Summer with only a few sporadic blooms later in the season. Hybrid garden Carnations are similar but can produce sporadic flowers throughout the season. Hybrid Florist Carnations are usually a ‘one-shot-wonder’ producing one strong-stemmed solitary blossom or spray. When cut back these can reproduce another stem or two of somewhat less spectacular flowers. But they are usually pulled out after the first bloom is harvested and then the beds are replanted with fresh stock.
Clove Pinks and Rainbow Indian Pinks produce nearly flat flowers with broad petals and smooth, fringed, ruffled or toothed edges. There are also many beautiful double forms of the Clove Pink that closely resemble their larger Carnation relatives. Colours include classic pink, red or white, also lilac, mauve, purple and recently true blue plus orange, salmon and yellow shades in banded, picotee, solid, spotted and variegated forms.
The larger Garden Carnation is somewhat taller and the many modern Florist Hybrid forms are much more robust and taller. The Garden Carnation is a grassy plant with grey-green leaves usually 20-30cm/8-12inches but sometimes 60cm/2ft. Some of the garden varieties can be semi-mat-forming perennials but tend to be shorter lived than the lower growing Clove Pinks. The Florist Hybrids can often produce much taller plants that are usually grown with all side shoots pinched out and trained as a solitary tall stem to 1-1.4m/3-4ft but sometimes even taller and very robust.
Most Dianthus Clove Pinks are hardy, vigorous groundcovers of easy culture if given full sun, good air circulation, a neutral or slightly alkaline soil with generous lime worked into the earth and perfect drainage. They thrive in enriched and limy stony, light soils, on hillsides, banks and terraces, stone walls, and containers. Avoid overly enriched boggy, damp or excessively wet ground as plants will invariable develop crown or root rot.
Dianthus should be deeply watered during dry periods and feed lightly but regularly with a balanced garden fertiliser. Professional growers usually feed Carnations and Florist Dianthus with compost or well aged animal manure and blood and bone plus bone dust before planting and while in early stages of growth. Once buds begin to develop the plants are fed with a fertiliser higher in Phosphate and Potassium. Some Growers side dress with extra Superphosphate or liquid Phosphate as buds and blooms form.
Dianthus plants usually only live for two or three years. But in mat-forming species, fresh runners often naturally take root and continue to spread, giving the impression that the plant is a perpetual perennial. Chabaud and most Garden Carnations plus Sweet William, Sweet Wivelsfield and annual Dianthus are started from seed sown in Late Winter with bottom heat or Spring, Summer or Autumn. The early sowings will often flower the first season. The later sowings often produce the strongest plants that bloom the following Spring and Summer. Spring is an ideal time to sow their seed and especially to plant advanced seedlings and container-grown stock.
With perennial Dianthus species, fresh stock is best propagated from layering or cuttings taken Spring through Late Summer. These strike easily and quickly when plunged into a mix of peat and sand which is kept bright, humid and moderately moist. Layers and cuttings reproduce a perfect replica of the parent plant. So when a new strong cultivar is meant to be maintained or reproduced, this is almost always done through cuttings. These must be well established before Winter. They can be transplanted anytime from Early Spring through Late Autumn.
Dianthus is also easily raised from seed which is best sown from Late Winter under glass and with bottom heat or anytime from Early Spring through to Early Summer. Seed germinates rapidly if kept warm and lightly moist and grows fairly quickly. The Rainbow Pinks will often flower 10-12 weeks from seed while Clove Pinks and Carnations can often take 4-5 months before they begin to flower.
Annual Dianthus and especially Garden Carnations produce much better blooms on much sturdier plants when they are pinched back while young. Pinch out the main stem to 3-4 nodes and continue to pinch back every new shoot to the same length. Once 10-12 shoots have developed into a clump, then let them flower. The finest blooms occur when all side buds are removed allowing only the largest top bud to bloom. When cutting these flowers do so on sunny mornings just as the bloom opens. Take the entire stem cutting back again to the third or fourth node which will encourage further branching and bushier plants
Merchants often sell this Dianthus Clove Pink seed as “old fashioned”, “grass”, or “perennial” Pinks/Dianthus. Annual Dianthus is often sold as Indian, China, China Doll or Telstar Pinks. The hybrid cultivar ‘Gaiety’ is particularly fast, hardy, reliable and vivid. Sow thinly preferably into containers or direct where they are meant to grow and lightly cover with soil or light well-aged compost. When sown direct, work the ground to a fine tilth and remember that Dianthus and Carnations enjoy well enriched limy soils that drain perfectly in sunny and warm positions.
Once the seedlings are a few centimetres tall, thin to only a few seedlings per pot or punnet; or thin or transplant to stand 20 to 30cm/8-12inches apart. Dianthus and Carnations resent crowding or overshadowing by nearby plants. They really prefer quite airy, open sunny situations. Guard these tender babies against Slugs and Snails. Once foliage matures they are seldom attacked and also suffer from few diseases or predators. When grown under cover or glass or in less than full sunlight, they often develop rust fungus or botrytis and frequently crown rot if ever they become persistently damp, humid or wet.
Raising Clove Pinks and Indian/Rainbow Pinks from seed has the advantage that many plants can be raised for little cost and often results in interesting variations. Dianthus is quite a variable species and hybrids often result from cross pollination. It is those plants raised from seed that have the potential to produce something exciting, different and new. And being that Dianthus is considered one of the world’s most cherished ‘love flowers’, almost every batch of seeds is guaranteed to produce dozens of wonderful plants to adore!
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