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Before shops lined their shelves with brightly bottled perfumes; before craft stores sold artificial blooms for décor; before people enjoyed daily (or even weekly) showers and baths, there were flowers. And as humans evolved, so did the ways in which we used them, from covering up body odor to communicating affection. Our modern-day flower market is now filled with highly hybridized varieties, primarily bought for the vase, that lack the scent or appearance of the cultivars from centuries ago. However, as heirlooms continue to capture people’s attention, more of these flowers of old are reclaiming the spotlight.
One of the oldest and perhaps most beloved, Dianthus spp. — the alternately dubbed pink family — is a genus known for its eye-catching colors, delicately frilled petals, and strong, clove-like fragrance. And in a world where tantalizing flower scents are growing thinner, the importance and allure of pinks can’t be overlooked. You can harness Dianthus’ potential by growing cultivars in your garden, using it in your cooking, and accenting your bouquets with the fragrance and beauty of these blooms.
Pinks From Past to Present
According to records, Dianthus’ history spans at least 2,000 years, and possibly more. Because of how long it’s been around, the exact native origin is uncertain, though some sources have traced its roots most likely to Eurasia. Its presence lingers throughout history, from paintings in late medieval and Renaissance art to mentions in written works, such as Shakespeare. Even Thomas Jefferson planted Dianthus. During the Victorian era, they were seen peeking out of nosegays — small bunches of flowers that hung on a person’s body to mask odors — so named for making the person wearing them pleasing to the nose.
The petals of China pink (Dianthus chinensis) are often used in cooking.
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If you encounter heirloom cultivars of pinks today, the flowers still carry many of the characteristics admired through history, but since they were hybridized centuries ago, they’ve each developed their own unique traits. “Carnation,” “clove pink,” and “sweet William” all fall under the Dianthus umbrella, and though these common names may be used interchangeably to describe pinks, they’re technically different cultivars. Popular pinks include sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), China pink (D. chinensis), carnation or clove pink (D. caryophyllus), and garden pink (D. plumarius).
Dianthus flower colors range from dark purple to vibrant hot pink; some of their petals are two-toned like tie-dye, while others are one solid color. Some cultivars sport large, puffy flowers, while others exhibit clustered heads made up of smaller blooms. Dianthus were dubbed “pinks” due to their petals, most of which have jagged or frilly edges that resemble the zig-zag edges of a cloth cut with pinking shears. However, Dianthus’ scent is potentially what draws us in the most, with its strong, warm, spicy, clove-like fragrance. With a name meaning “flower of the gods” in Greek, this heirloom’s scent makes it clear why it’s worthy of homage to a deity.
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Today, gardeners plant heirloom pinks in their gardens and join the long line of Dianthus enthusiasts who’ve come before them. Cooks also incorporate the petals into desserts, meals, and seasonings. And just like centuries ago, pinks are still admired for their beauty and scent in bouquets, which liven up any home.
Growing and Harvesting Tips
It’s one thing to buy a few pinks, but it’s another to actually grow them yourself and have the privilege of smelling the results of your gardening efforts. Dianthus grows best in Zones 4 through 9. Cultivars come in annuals, perennials, and biennials, so do some research before deciding which ones you want to grow. China pink, for example, is an annual cultivar, while garden pink is a perennial.
If starting Dianthus from seed, start indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date. When early spring arrives (just before or at your average last frost date), plant the seedlings about 12 inches apart in well-drained, alkaline soil in full sun. Keep the soil fairly dry, as too much moisture will make Dianthus susceptible to root rot. Also, make sure the plants have good air circulation. From late spring through late summer, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful, fragrant blooms ranging from 6 to 24 inches high, depending on the cultivar.
Photo by Rare Seeds
Because many of these Dianthus flowers are smaller, they’re more visually arresting when they’re planted en masse. At their peak, they’ll attract pollinators and perfume the garden with their spicy scent. To propagate them, you can collect the seeds or cut and replant non-flowering stems.
Once Dianthus blooms, you’ll also have the opportunity to cut some of the flowers and bring the beauty indoors. When a few of the flowers on a cluster head are open, use shearing scissors to carefully cut the stem at an angle, as close to the ground as you can. Once cut, transfer your harvest to fresh water, and let it sit for a couple hours in a shaded, cool, well-ventilated area before arranging.
Using Pinks In the Home
All Dianthus cultivars have edible petals, which are a treat when used in cooking! Add them to homemade jams, infuse them in dressings, crystallize and top desserts with them, or whisk them into a panna cotta. Their flavor, much like their scent, is sweet and floral, with a touch of spicy clove. You can also powder the petals to use in spice blends and desserts, or as a garnish. In powder form, the unmistakable spicy perfume freely emanates.
Sweet William, a cultivar of Dianthus, combined with peonies, greenery, and baby's breath makes a beautiful flower arrangement.
Photo by Getty Images/ValdisO
Dianthus shines as a colorful accent in bouquets, as well as provides a strong fragrance for your home. Check with your local florist if you’d like to purchase a premade bouquet, but if you’re growing pinks, you can harvest them to create your own floral bundles.
Red sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) makes a bold statement, and grows well in pots and containers.
Photo by Getty Images/Tom Meaker
Though we no longer tie bundles of flowers around ourselves to ward off odors, we can still create nosegays and other bouquets that allow us to admire old heirlooms. Dianthus, chief among these heirlooms, is just begging to be brought into our homes. After visiting Englewood Florist of Lawrence, Kansas, for some bouquet-building wisdom and reading Chris McLaughlin’s Growing Heirloom Flowers, I came away with the following tricks and tips for keeping pinks in floral arrangements:
- Dianthus typically acts as an accent flower, framing the larger featured flowers in your arrangement. But, just because they don’t hold the starring role doesn’t mean you have to skimp on your pinks.
- Choose the flowers that will be your focal point, and then build the bouquet around them, making sure your peripheral flowers (such as Dianthus) and greenery all point toward them. It also works well to pull Dianthus deeper into the arrangement to make these focal flowers really pop.
- Pick a container after you’ve chosen your flowers, not the other way around, so that the flowers, not the vase, enjoy the spotlight. For longer-stemmed flowers, use a taller container, and for shorter-stemmed flowers, use a smaller one.
- Remove all foliage that will sit below the vase’s water line.
- Use a stabilizing flower frog to help you anchor and arrange your flowers and foliage. Or, just angle the stems in the vase, which will create a self-supporting “grid” of sorts.
- Flower diversity is beautiful! Pull flowers of varying textures, colors, and foliage to create an unforgettable bouquet. Pay attention to what colors attract your eyes, how flowers and foliage connect to each other, and how they balance each other in the container.
- During the Victorian era, certain flowers expressed certain emotions or ideas. In the language of flowers, Dianthus generally means pure love or boldness. Think about how you can utilize this meaning, as well as the meaning of others flowers, in your bouquet. (Learn more about floral language at Victorian Women and Their Plants.)
- Don’t place Dianthus (or any flowers, really) near sources of ethylene gas — namely, ripening fruits on countertops — as this gas can make flowers fade, droop, and die early.
- Dianthus has a vase life of about 5 to 14 days, depending on environmental conditions and the amount of care they’re given.
- If you’re unsure about bouquet care, do your research. Talk to a local florist, or look online for flower preservation suggestions. A good rule of thumb for any bouquet is to change vase water regularly and keep it out of extreme temperatures. You’ve worked hard to grow and arrange these flowers, so keep them around as long as possible.
From centuries-old artwork to the modern gardens of heirloom enthusiasts, Dianthus continues to allure us with its numerous colors and unmistakable scents, reminding us why this cultivar has been prized and passed down for generations. It won’t replace showers or perfumes, but the flower of the gods will surely find a place in your heart and home as a petite but powerfully bold bloom. It might just be love at first sniff.
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Where to Buy Dianthus Seeds
Jessica Mitchell is an editor for Heirloom Gardener and has become an admirer of antique cultivars. She hopes to one day have her own giant garden of heirloom and native plants.