Dianthus provide a wide variety of great cool-season flowers

When folks ask about dianthus I smile. It’s like asking a kid if he likes candy bars. The obvious answer is yes, but there are so many different kinds to choose from.

Dianthus is a genus with a great variety of members. Their common name is ‘pink’, but many are not that color. All pinks have flowers with ragged edges, almost like their petals have been attacked by pinking shears.

Dianthus are carnation relatives. In our area, most are perennial, but many types are marketed as annuals. Numerous varieties are even winter hardy when planted in containers in eastern North Carolina.

Some types have solitary flowers, usually a couple inches or more across and can be from six inches to over two feet tall. These are what we generally call carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus).

. They can be grown in perennial gardens and are often used as cut flowers. Carnations have been cultivated for many centuries and are a florist industry staple.

Some true carnations have much smaller flowers, so we call them dianthus and not carnations. We usually reserve the carnation name for the large flowered types, whether they are tall or not.

A second old time type is called Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus). These are popular because they are easily established from seed. Sweet Williams are true biennials, but we usually treat them as perennials, because they re-seed themselves so freely.

A biennial is a plant that completes its life-cycle in two years. They produce a strong root system with plenty of stored energy in their first year, and they flower and go to seed in the second. Copious amounts of seed mean many new plants and the appearance of being perennial.

Cheddar pinks (Dianthus grataniapolitensis) and maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides) are two other perennial types commonly used in gardens. Maiden pinks provide a delicate texture and pleasant fragrance. Cheddar pinks bestow a mass of color to a planting. Most varieties are pink.

Cheddar pinks are often used as ground covers and they form dense patches. In our summer heat they usually struggle unless soils are sandy, or they are planted in raised beds.

Another type of pink is annual dianthus (Dianthus chinensis). This is somewhat of a

misnomer, as in northeastern North Carolina most are perennial. Some cultivars don’t persist more than a few years, but they still come back in the spring. This type usually flowers heavily.

In our locale, all dianthus species thrive and flower more heavily in cooler weather. They also perform better in sunny well-drained soils. I think that’s why they do so well in large pots with coarse artificial mix.

Dianthus flowers are also edible and are sometimes used to decorate salads. They make a delicate flavored tea too. The upper portion of the petals have sweet pleasant taste. Petal bases can be bitter. Years ago, dianthus species were widely used medicinally. They aren’t anymore.

When I was a kid I remember farm animals trying to steal Captain Kangaroo’s carnation. I assumed that meant plants were palatable, but deer and other animals usually leave them alone. I guess I can’t rely on memories from 55 plus years ago.

Dianthus showing the tooth-edged petals

Marketed as annual dianthus, it is perennial in eastern North Carolina.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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3 Responses to Dianthus provide a wide variety of great cool-season flowers

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Seriously? Dianthus? We use them only because someone else picked them out. They work, but are not so great in our climate. I rather dislike Sweet William, because they are never happy here. Carnations are grown as cut flowers in Watsonville, but in regulated greenhouse environments.

    • tedmanzer says:

      They do really well here, especially in spring and fall. I kind of share your opinion on Sweet William though. The often get weedy, but people like them because they are an old time traditional flower. I think they are fine in a wildflower mix, where eventually the plants best suited for the location dominate and the others fade away.

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