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Dianthus - the Heavenly Flower
Member Name: ladybracknell
Advantages: Pretty flowers and gorgeous fragrance (especially on still evenings)
Disadvantages: Waterlogging results in death!
'The fairest flowers o' the season
Are our carnations and streaked gillyflowers.'
One of the largest groups of garden plants is the genus Dianthus, a huge group of flowering perennials of some 300 species which encompasses the showy carnation sold in countless florists at one end of the spectrum and the smaller and to my mind, prettier Clove Carnations and Garden Pinks at the other. This is another species which attracts enthusiasts worldwide and there are literally hundreds of species available to buy from nurserymen and women who dedicate their working lives to developing different strains of this very appealing plant.
As anyone who has read my previous gardening reviews will know, I'm in the process of changing my garden from the cottage garden style to something easier to maintain which involves getting rid of lots of the more labour intensive perennials and exchanging them for flowering shrubs and bulbs but one of the cottage garden staples I certainly don't intend to lose are my Clove Carnations and Pinks. Not only are their upturned little faces a joy to see but their scent is absolutely superb.
A little bit of plant history and a smattering of Ancient Greek
It seems to me that the edges are blurred when it comes to this group of plants and they now seem to be divided into two disparate groups: the Carnation which is the name mainly used for the larger, showy florist variety of plant and Pinks, the simplest form of the genus and a cottage garden favourite. They are also classed as both a garden plant and a herb. The earliest 'carnation' to hit these shores was the dianthus caryophyllus or Clove Carnation which has been grown in British gardens since the sixteenth century. This is the 'gillyflower' of Shakespeare (see the quote above) and much beloved of Elizabethan gardeners and the plant which has morphed over the centuries into what is regarded nowadays as the Garden Pink. The origin of this early introduction isn't known for certain but the perceived wisdom is that they originally came from somewhere around the Eastern Mediterranean area, probably in the vicinity of Greece and Turkey. The name dianthus is derived from Ancient Greek: 'dios' meaning god and 'anthus' meaning flower.
Although the common name is the Garden Pink, they're not actually all pink and it's probable that the name doesn't derive from their colour but refers to their slightly ragged petals which resemble pinking. (For the benefit of those who don't have any knowledge of sewing, pinking is a method of finishing off material by cutting the edges into a zigzag to prevent extensive fraying). The colour range for these flowers goes from snowy white to the deepest purples and reds, so dark they could almost be regarded as black. The plants aren't restricted to a single coloured flower either but have been bred to show different patterns and striations on the flowers and are available in their simplest form as single flowers or more hybridised varieties with double flowers and spray heads. All of the cultivars of the Clove Carnation or Pink are high scented.
These early Carnations weren't the only introduction into British gardens and as the plant hunters travelled the globe, they brought back other species of carnations and pinks from the Far East and from alpine regions. As a group of plants, there is likely to be one to suit most situations in the garden, as long as it's relatively sunny.
As time has gone on, various plant breeders have developed the carnation and although the garden varieties have retained their delicate simplicity and perfume, those sold in florists shops have been cultivated more for their showy and long lasting blooms and this has frequently been at the expense of their perfume.
In my garden
I love gardening. It's one of the most therapeutic hobbies there is which offers fresh air and exercise without the expense of attending a gym. With such a huge group of plants, it's impossible to write about all of them and I've never attempted to grow the larger carnations, so I'm restricting my review to those I actually grow in my own garden, namely dianthus caryophyllus (Clove Pink), dianthus plumerius (Garden Pink) and dianthus barbatus (Sweet William).
I'll begin with the Sweet William which is a biennial, flowering in its second year of growth and which reaches about 8 to 12 inches in height It has fairly thin blue-green rather glaucous leaves, topped by sweet smelling flowers which form a mop-head making them look a little like tiny hydrangeas. Most of these plants are in shades of white, pink or red with a different coloured darker or lighter eye or central area and as the name implies, a deliciously sweet scent with a hint of cloves. I've grown Sweet Williams from seed quite successfully and they are easy to germinate and grow but as they are biennials, which means you have a year without flowers and my garden isn't big enough to have nursery beds, I generally buy these from the garden centre and treat them as an annual. Although the plants can tolerate a little dappled shade, like all plants in this genus, they really do best in full sun.
Clove Carnations and Garden Pinks are perennials and one of my favourite scented plants for the garden. Although their scent is slightly noticeable during the day, it's fighting against all the other daytime fragrances. However, when you step into the garden on a still summer evening once the sun has set, the heady and sensual perfume from these small plants absolutely fills the air. Clove Pinks do have a strong clove-like scent but this is overlaid with a wonderful honeyed sweetness and for me, this perfume is like catnip. I simply can't get enough of this beautiful fragrance which represents summer evenings to me more than any other garden scent.
Both these plants have very fine grey-green leaves which although they look grass-like and quite insignificant add a lightness and contrast of foliage but it's the little flowers which really steal the show. If a flower can represent an emotion, for me, these are merriment. Many of them have an eye, a circular area around the centre which is either darker or lighter than the rest of the flower and although the stems are generally quite short (anything from about 3 to 8 inches), they're sturdy enough to allow the flower to shiver slightly in the summer breeze as though they're chuckling merrily. Again, these plants thrive in strong sunshine and they flower from early Summer right through to the Autumn and the flowering season can be extended by picking off the dead heads.
Once the plant has finished flowering cut the flower stems right back into the centre of the plant to stimulate fresh growth. Dianthus really benefit from being gently clipped over, in the same way as lavender, again to encourage new leaf growth and prevent the plant from becoming leggy. In fact, that is one of the downsides to dianthus, if left to their own devices the foliage can become very straggly and unattractive. I would also add that some of the double flowering varieties can become a bit top heavy and will benefit from a little bit of staking, even if it's only a few twigs stuck in the ground just to give them some extra support.
Care and Propagation
Sweet Williams, Clove Carnations and Garden Pinks all thrive in a sunny and well drained situation but apart from that, plus a watering during very hot spells, they really don't require much care and attention and are pretty tolerant of most soil types, other than clay, though they prefer a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. They don't necessarily have to be planted in the garden either but do equally well in containers and although I'm not growing them that way this year, they did just as well on the patio as they do in the garden as long as you don't overdo the watering. The first time I grew them in a container, I killed them with kindness by waterlogging the plants which rotted the roots.
This waterlogging can be a bit of a problem especially during very wet winters. Dianthus are frost hardy and will survive very hard winters but last Winter I lost a couple of my plants which I think was because the melting snow waterlogged the roots.
I've never actually propagated Sweet William myself only ever having bought seed from suppliers or planted year old plants from the nursery but I've managed to produce new plants from my Clove Carnations and Pinks both by accident (these plants will self-seed very easily) and design. Gathering the seed is a simple process as they are produced at the base of the flower head so are easily plucked off and broken open to reveal the seeds. They can be sown directly into the soil, into a prepared bed, or into seed trays in a cold frame in early Spring. The seed should be only just barely covered with compost and then kept moist but not too wet until germination takes place. They can also be started off even earlier by sowing the seed indoors and once the plants are established, plant them out in the garden. This way is likely to produce flowers in the first year. It's also possible to propagate from softwood cuttings taken from a non-flowering shoot which is planted into prepared compost until rooted, or by layering. Again, these methods are speedier ways of propagation than from seed.
I've already touched on waterlogging which is the main problem for these plants but many of the varieties do well in rockeries which provides good drainage and generally eliminates this problem.
In the years I've been growing dianthus, I've never come across any attacks from pests although, according to the RHS website, they can be prone to the rust virus. These plants aren't particularly longed lived and over the course of three or four years will become woody and leggy although the process can be slowed down by clipping over the plants once they've flowered. However, propagation is relatively easy so replacing old plants and shouldn't prove problematical.
In praise of (some) carnations
I hope I've shown that every garden should give a little space to at least one species of the 'Heavenly Flower'. Their scent is reason enough for growing them but that delicious perfume coupled with their merry faces, makes this a perfect plant for the rockery, the front of the border or even patio containers. Although not always the easiest of plants to grow in rainy seasons or heavy soil, these plants will often grow in those dry sunny spots in the garden which defeat fussier plants.
Summary: A varied group of plants which look good in any but the shadiest gardens