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Also called pinks, these pretty cottage garden classics are long-blooming, prolific, and fragrant through the summer season. Discover six different types of dianthusfor the home gardener—from creeping rock garden ground covers to towering flowering plants.
What’s in a Name?
Often just called “pinks,” dianthus get that nickname from the fringed look of their petals, which look like they were cut by pinking shears (sawtoothed scissors used to create a patterned fabric edge). I always assumed the name came from their color, since most of them are a shade of pink, although there are plenty of white, purple, red, and even some yellow dianthuses, but it is actually the other way around!
In the 18th century, the color we refer to as “pink” was called blush, pale red, rose, light red, or flesh. The color we now call pink got its name from the flowers! The Dianthus family has other color connections, too. Carnations get their name from the Latin word carnis, meaning “flesh” and referring to the pale-pink hue of many carnation varieties.
Dianthus plants have been cultivated for thousands of years. They were popular in ancient Greece, where they were considered a divine flower and dedicated to Zeus. The name dianthus comes from the Greek word dios for “god” and anthos for “flower.” They were very popular in Tudor and Edwardian times when they were called by picturesque names like gillyflower, pheasant’s ear, and sops-in-wine. Some antique varieties, like ‘Fenbow’s Clove Pink’ can be traced back to the 14th century. Colonists brought their favorite dianthuses with them to the New World along with their other cherished possessions and mention of gillyflowers is noted in America as early as 1676.
Dianthus are popular for so many reasons. Besides producing an abundance of starry flowers, they are also long-blooming and will flower through the summer season if you deadhead properly. And their fragrance is lovely—similar to clove (hence another nickname: “clove pinks”). These flowers not only attract our eyes, but also bring butterflies to the garden as well as hummingbirds. Plus, they make lovely small bouquets of flowers.
Types of Dianthus
The Dianthus family is a large one, with over 300 species native to Europe and Asia. Most are rock garden plants or low edgers, but border carnations can grow to be 18-24 inches tall. According to the North American Dianthus Society, there are six classes of dianthus that are best for home gardens:
Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) are hardy in zones 5-8, bear multi-petaled flowers in mid-summer, have curly, blue-green foliage, and grow quite tall (12-24 inches). Look for hardy perennial border carnations (sometimes called wild carnations) instead of frost tender perpetuals that need to be grown in a greenhouse.
Cottage pinks (D. plumarius) have feathery-edged petals, grass-like leaves, and a sweet clove scent. They bloom in June and will often rebloom in the fall if deadheaded. Hardy in zones 3-9, the plants are 12-15 inches tall and usually a pale lilac pink.
‘Ipswich Pinks’ (Dianthus plumarius) are easy to grow from seed.
Hardy rock garden pinks include alpine pinks (D. alpinus) and Cheddar pinks (D. gratianopolitanus) and their hybrids. They are compact, low-growing plants, 2-6 inches tall with grassy, gray-green leaves. Hardy in zones 3-9, they bear strongly scented, small, fringed flowers.
Sweet Williams will grow well in part shade.
Clusterheads like Sweet William (D. barbatus) can be annuals, biennials, or short-lived perennials. Hardy in zones 3-9, they have clusters of single or double flowers in white, pink, red, or salmon on 12-24 inch tall stems.
My favorite Sweets Williams are the bi-colored ones.
China pinks (D. chinensis) are lightly scented and, although they are hardy perennials in zones 7-10, are considered annuals. Very colorful, they will bloom all summer long. The plants form a 3-4 inch high mound and the flowers are borne on stalks 6-10 inches tall.
Miscellaneous fragrant species hardy in zones 3-8 include the sand pink (D. arenarius) which is 6-10 inches tall and has deeply fringed, white blossoms; Noe’s pink (D. petraeus ssp. noeanus) which is an alpine species with white flowers and spiny green foliage; and the aptly named superb pink (D. superbus), which is sometimes called “fringed pink” for its feathery, deeply cut petals. It grows 12-20 inches tall, is hardy in zones 3-8, and is used in creating many hybrids like my favorite sweetly scented ‘Rainbow Loveliness’.
‘Rainbow Loveliness’ lives up to its name.
All dianthuses like a warm, sunny location with well-drained, slightly sweet soil. Since crown rot is the chief killer of these plants, wet areas should be avoided.
Plant them no deeper than they were growing in their container.
Mulch with stones or gravel to keep leaves off the wet ground. Don’t use heavy, organic, moisture-holding mulches.
Divide established plants in early spring or after flowering. Spring pruning will spur new growth. Shearing plants back after flowering may encourage a second set of flowers later in the season.
Even when they are not in bloom, dianthuses are attractive plants. Most form neat mounds and many have fine, blue-green foliage making them perfect front of the border plants.