Just as each month is associated with a particular birthstone (January’s being a garnet), so is each month paired with a particular flower. According to folklore, each of these flowers symbolized specific characteristics, which were in turn assigned to those born during that month. While some claim this custom arose with the Roman empire, I suspect that the florist industry might also have had something to do with it.
Well, it turns out that January’s “birth flower” is the carnation. Carnations are on my Top Ten list of flowers. They’re pretty, typically inexpensive, last a long time as a cut flower, and have a scent that I swoon over. Apparently, I’m in good company. Their genus, Dianthus, comes from the Greek for “flower of the gods.” How appropriate!
Normally, carnations come in shades of red, pink, and white, or perhaps a soft peach or primrose yellow, but that’s just the beginning. You’ve likely seen them used in corsages and boutonnieres, as they can be dyed to match any prom dress or wedding color scheme, from blue to green or even black.
The florist’s carnation that we’ve discussed so far is Dianthus caryophyllus. They come in two types—those grown for the floral trade, typically in a greenhouse, and those we grow in our gardens. Garden plants are going to be shorter and bushier, as they’re subject to wind and weather. They’re not particularly difficult to grow, but even though they’re perennials, they’re not hardy here in Colorado.
Still, carnations can be grown as annuals if given an early enough start. Plant seeds indoors now, and continue to move them into larger pots until the weather warms and they can be moved outside. For best results, give them full sun and rich, moist, well-drained soil. Plants may require staking in windy areas, especially as they get taller and the flower begin to form.
Fortunately for those of us in colder climates, carnations aren’t the only species of Dianthus. Sweet William, D. barbatus, is a biennial, growing one year, then flowering, setting seed, and dying the next. Other Dianthus species are known as pinks (such as the cottage pink, D. plumarius), or are simply labeled “Dianthus.”
Many of these other Dianthus species are ideally suited to life in Colorado. Hardy but short-lived perennials, some gardeners treat them like annuals and simply purchase new seedlings every year; most nurseries carry several varieties.
However, for the biggest selection, you’ll have to start from seed. Because they’re slow to bloom, now is the time to sow those seeds indoors under lights. Set transplants outside around the average last frost date. They’re hardy and can handle a few late frosts.
On established plants, flowers appear in mid-to-late spring and last for several weeks. If fading flowers are deadheaded, plants will rebloom throughout the summer, though not with the foliage-smothering intensity of that first floral flush. Newly transplanted seedlings will bloom in three to four months, weather permitting.
While the family resemblance is clear, the flowers of these Dianthus may lack the pompom fullness of carnations. Some are double while others consist of a mere five petals (although in some cases, those petals are pretty spectacular). With ground-hugging habits and short flower stems, the blossoms of these diminutive plants are best left in the garden, rather than cut for a vase or lapel. And though the flowers may be smaller, their spicy scents are just as strong, perfuming the air around them.
Like their larger relatives, these Dianthus do best in full sun and neutral to slightly alkaline, well-drained soil—just what I find in my yard. Moisture is appreciated, as long as the soil is well-drained; roots quickly rot in soggy mud. Once the plants are established and growing, they’re quite drought tolerant. You can find healthy specimens edging the xeric border at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I planted Dianthus next to the small turf area in our backyard, where they receive a bit of windblown overspray from the lawn sprinklers.
Dianthus are particularly appropriate for cottage gardens, rock gardens (some alpine miniatures require the use of a hand lens for a good look), as bedding plants, and in containers. My inclination is to plant them everywhere!
One last note: while many experts include Dianthus on their lists of rabbit-resistant plants, I often see our local rabbits nibbling on the leaves.