If you are not a fan of Shakespeare or Chaucer, you might not have heard of gillyflowers. But you might know these flowers by other names: sweet williams, carnations, cottage pinks or garden pinks. All these common names refer to flowers in the genus Dianthus.
In classic tales, spicy, clove-scented gillyflowers were part of tussy mussies, posies and nosegays, the fragrant little bouquets that people carried to counteract the stench of the streets. Even if you do not need aromatherapy to get through the streets these days, gillyflowers’ sweet scent, frilly blossoms and deer resistance are just a few reasons to grow them today.
The Dianthus genus includes 300 varieties grown as annuals, biennials and evergreen perennials. Choose carefully; some carnations can grow three feet tall, while diminutive varieties of cottage or garden pinks will only reach four inches. Dianthus may be mounded, erect or trailing. Most have silvery-blue, grass-like foliage that is attractive even when the plant is not in bloom.
Low-growing garden or cottage pinks, including Dianthus plumarius and Dianthus fragrans, are suitable for rock gardens and along paths. Their frilled blossoms range from pale pink to almost black, providing a wide range of colors to choose from. And while many cottage pinks are in fact pink, that is not why they bear that name.
The name actually comes from an old English word for the scissors that tailors use to serrate or zigzag the edges of fabric. “Pynken” were shears that gave fabric the same ragged or serrated edges these little flowers have. Now we call them “pinking shears.”
Have you ever grown sweet william (Dianthus barbatus)? Blossom colors include deep maroons, rosy pinks and crisp whites, in solid or striking bicolor combinations. Fabulous in flower arrangements and bouquets, the large spicy-scented flowers are showy and kaleidoscopic. Up close, each plate-sized sweet william blossom reveals itself to be a whole bouquet of tiny flowers, a little universe unto itself.
Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) are probably the least hardy, but they also grow taller than many other dianthus. Sturdy and long lasting as cut flowers, carnations come in the deepest reds, purest whites and pinkest pinks. Yellows and soft apricot colors are also available.
For the “not found in nature” colored carnations you might occasionally see on St Patrick’s Day or other occasions, try this home science project. Purchase or pick some white carnations, trim the stems and put them in a glass of water tinted with the food color of your choice.
Dianthus are relatively problem free. Root rot can be a problem, but you can avoid it by preparing the bed properly.
Loosen the soil to a depth of one foot. Add a two- to four-inch layer of compost. Dig a hole twice the size of the plant’s container. Place the plant in the hole so that the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. I find that if I position the plant a little above the surface, it ends up just right after I water it and everything settles a bit.
Make sure that your dianthus get at least one inch of water a week. A two-inch layer of mulch can help keep moisture in and cut down on watering, but keep the mulch away from the stems.
Tall varieties appreciate staking to keep them upright. All dianthus need at least four hours of sun to perform well. They prefer cooler weather, so they are a good spring choice for our area.
When purchasing dianthus at the nursery, look for plants with clear green or grayish-green foliage. Avoid leggy plants in favor of more compact or well-branched specimens. Pass up plants with yellowed leaves (a possible sign of root rot) and any that have traces of wispy webs. You do not want to bring home spider mites.
You can start dianthus easily from seed. Indoors, start seeds six to eight weeks before you want to set the plants out in the garden. To sow outdoors, wait until all chance of frost has passed and the soil has started to warm. Follow the directions on your seed packet.
Dianthus will often reward you by self sowing. Deadheading (removing spent flowers) will prolong bloom time on tall varieties. Shearing mounding plants after bloom will encourage them to re-bloom. After the first killing frost, cut the stems back to an inch or two above the soil line. Divide dianthus every three to four years as new growth begins in the spring, lifting plants and dividing them into clumps.
Workshop: Napa County Master Gardeners will present a workshop on “Fruit Tree Pruning” on Saturday, February 9, at the University of California Cooperative Extension (address below). The morning session (from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.) will consist of an indoor lecture. The afternoon session (from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.) will consist of a hands-on workshop outdoors in an orchard. You will learn techniques to keep your fruit trees healthy and productive. Online registration (credit card only); Mail in registration (cash or check only).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners (http://cenapa.ucdavis.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4221, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions?