Heirloom Gardener Blogs > The Curated Cutting Garden

Carnations Make a Comeback

In my seed stash for the first time this year is Dianthus caryophyllus, also known as the common, lowly, oft-scoffed-at, carnation. 

Up until a few years ago, this supermarket-stand flower had sunk to a most disrespectful low in the eyes of gardeners, florists and would-be brides. And for shame!

With its Latin name translating to “divine flower” and a storied history of cultivation that spans 2,000 years to its earliest mentions in Rome, Dianthus certainly deserves a spot in the modern cutting garden.

From an industry standpoint, carnations as a crop come second in value only to the ever-reigning rose. Most of today’s florists are styling carnations grown under glass in Columbia or Peru, and they bear little resemblance to the glorified specimens that graced famous gardens hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

 

antique botanical illustration

 

Sadly, what made carnations most famous wasn’t their history or easy cultivation, it was their scent, which was lost in breeding thousands of new cut market varieties. Described as “heady,” “intoxicating,” and “jasmine-like,” the sweet and spicy aroma of cloves entranced gardeners, florists, brides and their groomsmen who wore it on their lapels. But if mere beauty and fragrance don’t impress you, you can float the flowers in wine, have them on cake, and eat it too.

I was darkly delighted that the story of Dianthus begins with Diana the Huntress meeting a handsome shepherd in the field. She has a crush on him but he doesn’t reciprocate. So like any Roman goddess worth her salt, she tears out the man’s eyeballs, tosses them on the ground, and voila, carnations sprout!

 

Let’s grow ours from seed.

 

I’ve got to start this line up with the remarkable ‘Black Minstrels.’ This striking near-black and white beauty offers a high-contrast cut that may just be brilliant arranged with textural silver foliage. In an arrangement, you can go the pop art route by combining it with candy-colored blooms or fuse it with a moody mix of wine reds. If you’re not a fan of the white edge (called a picotee), see the impressionable ‘Grenadin King of Blacks’ for a solid option.

 

black minstrel carnation
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.RareSeeds.com)

 

I have a soft spot for beige and brown flowers right now, so the very retro ‘Stripes & Picotees’ mix interests me, offering primarily pink and cream blooms with 25% the rest. I really like the palette of ‘Chabaud Red and Yellow,’ which appears to have all the right peach, blush, and salmon tones to cheer 2017. For an even more refreshing option, look up ‘Chabaud Orange Sherbert.’

 

stripes and picotees chaubaud red and yellow carnation
Left: Thompson and Morgan presents 'Stripes & Picotees,' and Chaubaud 'Red & Yellow' (Photo, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds wwww.RareSeeds.com)

 

Another beautiful heirloom you can find seed for is ‘Enfant de Nice,’ sourced from a multigenerational farm in French countryside. The blooms are as romantic as where they come from, running a feminine palette from scarlet and salmon through rose, pink, and white, with some showing picotee and stripes.

 

But let’s talk about “Bizarres”, the legendary carnations of yore that had four inch blooms and were quite popular through the 1700s until 1830 or so when they fell out of favor and all but disappeared. The good news is I found one survivor for sale, and it’s the incredible purple and bright pink bicolour ‘Chomley Farran.’ This 300 year-old bloom proves carnations are capable of a lot more pop and pizzazz than most of us give them credit for.

Chomley Farran carnation
Annie's Annuals shows us the rare surviving Bizarre, 'Chomley Farran.'