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The Homeowners Column
Carnations – not your granny's bloomers
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Carnations are often referred to as "old fashioned" flowers. In the garden, however, they are not your granny's bloomers. Carnations, also known as pinks, include several species in the genus Dianthus. The large familiar carnations found in flower arrangements are generally grown in greenhouses. A whole closet full of carnation relatives is ready to add lovely flowers, foliage and fragrance to the garden.
Although pinks are often a pink color, the name originates from the word "pinct". In the world of sewing (fabric not seeds), "pinct" or "pinked" refers to the jagged edge produced by pinking shears to reduce raveling of the fabric edge. The fringed edges of the flower petals resemble the work of a bored sewer.
Cheddar pinks, Dianthus gratianopolitanus, grow naturally at Cheddar Gorge in southwestern England, an area made famous for its cheese. A cheddar pink cultivar 'Firewitch', also known by its German name of 'Feuerhexe', was named the perennial plant of the year for 2006 by the Perennial Plant Association. Similar to other dianthus 'Firewitch' grows best in full sun to light shade in well-drained, slightly alkaline soils. It may be short lived and eventually die out over the winter in wet soils. The narrow almost needlelike leaves are held in lovely evergreen or rather ever-blue-grey-green 3-4 inch tall mounds all year. The plants get to 6-8 inches tall in flower. They are a perfect size for edging a sidewalk, flower border or as a ground cover in a spring bulb garden.
Rock gardens, raised beds and wall crevices are perfect spots for cheddar pinks. Masses of small hot pink flowers cover 'Firewitch' plants in mid spring. If that weren't enough, pinks are known for their spicy clove fragrance. To encourage additional flowering through the season, spent flower stalks should be sheared after first flowering. Since pinks hate wet soil, they should not be mulched heavily with organic mulch especially in winter. The plants will grow better with mulch of sand, poultry grit or pea gravel.
Other cheddar pinks are 'Tiny Rubies' with their double flowered deep pink flowers and the pink flowered 'Baby Blanket'. Both form nice small clumps. 'Bath's Pink' has 1 inch in diameter soft pink flowers. The plants tend to scramble over walls and the ground in a ground cover not a "ground smother" kind of way. 'Mountain Mist' has similar pink flowers but has bluer leaves. The plant adds a fine texture to the garden even when it isn't in flower.
Another species Maiden Pinks, Dianthus deltoides, offers cultivars of 'Zing Rose' with deep scarlet flowers, 'Brilliant' and 'Red Maiden' with rose to red flowers and 'Vampire' with carmine red flowers and deep green leaves.
Sweet William, Dianthus barbatus, is a traditional granny garden flower. They are generally biennials but often reseed themselves so as to appear as perennials. Sweet William is known for its clusters of fragrant flowers often grown as annuals or cut flowers. Well-known cultivars of Sweet William include 'Messenger Mix', 'Indian Carpet' and the 'Tall Cutting Mix'.
Some new dianthus in the "Fruit Punch Series" are 'Coconut Punch' with fluffy red and white flowers and the velvety red flowers of 'Pomegranate Kiss'.
Dianthus is an underused and under appreciated group of plants. Combine pinks with other perennials such as catmint Nepeta x faassenii 'Walkers Low' or 'Blue Wonder' or the intense blue flowers of plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. Good companions include hardy geraniums, rock soapwort or early spring blooming pansies.