The Year of the Dianthus

Whether you know them as dianthus, sweet William, border
carnations or

pinks,

many home gardeners overlook the advantages of these versatile
bedding plants. And now, 2004 has been named the Year of the
Dianthus by the National Garden Bureau.
Whether you know them as dianthus, sweet William, border carnations or “pinks,” many home gardeners overlook the advantages of these versatile bedding plants. And now, 2004 has been named the Year of the Dianthus by the National Garden Bureau.

The National Garden Bureau is a non-profit organization, based outside of Chicago, made up of seed companies. Each year the organization celebrates a flower and a vegetable as their “Year Of” recipients. Next week I’ll cover the 2004 vegetable: peas.

The dianthus genus is a large one, with about 300 species. Generally speaking, dianthus species are annuals, biennials or perennials. This means if you plant them once, you may have them come back year after year. It primarily depends on the weather or where you plant them in the garden. We’re lucky, living where we do, because dianthus will grow and bloom all winter long in our climate. They will thrive in full sun, and will not be hurt by frost or floods. Dianthus will do well in the summer heat, too, but they prefer partial shade during hot weather.

Unlike their carnation relatives, you’ll find that most dianthus are dwarf plants with clusters of beautiful tiny flowers. The five-petaled flowers vary greatly in that you can choose from solid colors, bicolors or serrated edges. You’ll also find single-petaled flowers or double ones that look like miniature carnations. While the predominant color is pink or pale magenta, white is also common. Reds deepening to purple are beginning to become available, and yellow is present although rare. Markings of one or more colors are frequent, sometimes as rings or zones, with intricate radial patterns.

Dianthus serve many purposes, but have long been used in rock gardens and walls, and in the border where low-growing flowers are desired. Many are suitable for window boxes and containers. Even though plants are usually under a foot high, they can be used as cut flowers to bring indoors. Most dianthus offer a spicy, refreshing fragrance.

Dianthus do best if planted in fairly rich soil. Generous applications of ground limestone will produce noticeable benefits. Avoid overwatering, and shear off faded blooms. As mentioned earlier, plant in full sun this time of year. If you plant in spring and summer, they prefer a little shade in order to last through the summer.

This time of year, most home gardeners go straight to pansies, violas, calendulas or Iceland poppies for winter color. But dianthus will compete well with any of these traditional winter bedding plants.

Dianthus also has a local connection involving Goldsmith Seeds, a wholesale flower hybridizer in Gilroy. Goldsmith crossed two different types of dianthus in the late 1960s, resulting in a entirely new cross called “Queen of Hearts.” It won an All America Selections Award in 1971. Goldsmith followed up with another interspecific cross in 1974, and won another AAS Award with “Magic Charms.” Both varieties, but especially “Magic Charms,” opened up the market for growers, who could nor produce flowering bedding plants in pots or packs for spring, which would go on to bloom all summer for the home gardener.

By the way, the common name of “pinks” comes from the notched petals, which look like they have been cut with pinking shears. I have no idea why they are sometimes called sweet William.

Next week: The Year of the Pea.

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