I’m pretty sure I began gardening so that I could pick flowers with impunity.
Walking to school in the mid 60s, I gathered a small fistful of garden pinks for Miss M. my second-grade teacher. I grew up in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle where a small child could walk the better part of mile on her own past old homes perched on basalt rockeries cascading with tempting blooms.
When I arrived to my classroom, rather than graciously receiving the offering of a painfully shy student, my teacher scolded me in front of the class for stealing flowers. I was mortified. To be honest, I still am.
A plant that became a color
Gardeners have grown pinks (Dianthus spp.) for hundreds of years. However, the early name didn’t originate from the color of the blooms but was a reference to how each petal looked like it was trimmed with pinking shears, a form of scissors that make a zig zag cut. Flowers in the Dianthus family bloom in a variety of colors from deep red to pure white, but the color that today we know as “pink” is by far the most common—a hue that was once referred to as “incarnation,” a somewhat racially weighted reference to “flesh” tones.
Confused? Bear with me.
Over time the English language swapped the common name of a flower, pink, as the name of a color and adopted the old name for that color, (in)carnation, for the name of the plant. Today, most pinks are referred to as carnations.
I love this sort of arcane backstory to familiar garden plants.
Today the name, and the color, persists. Garden pinks (D. plumarius), sometimes called cottage pinks, are evergreen perennials with a mostly ground-hugging growth habit. Foliage color ranges from deep green to a glaucous bluish green.
Flowers may be single—often with a dark contrasting eye—semi-double, or fully double, and range in size from teeny tiny to buxom blooms that can reach 2 to 3 inches across. Even though the color palette of contemporary florist carnations has some yummy new hues, (caramel and antique rose anyone?) cultivation is best left to expert flower farmers and gardeners who are willing to rig up a support system to prevent the flowering stems from flopping. In all instances, blossoms form at the top of knobby stems and make a beautiful long-lasting cut flower with a spicy clove scent. I’m told to retain the strongest scent you should wait until buds are showing some color before picking.
Please pick those flowers
Those rockery pinks of long ago were likely cheddar pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus), maiden pinks (D. deltoides), or China pinks (D. chinensis). All provide a low cushion of tidy evergreen foliage and continuous blooms, especially if faded flowers are removed (thank you 8-year-old petal pincher).
Unlike the flouncy skirts of most cottage pinks and carnations, fringed pink (Dianthus superbus) is a bit of an awkward garden companion with a lanky, sprawling habit. A favorite of Christopher Lloyd, a gardener known to break a few rules, who prized the delicate lacy flowers for their potent perfume. Perennial but short lived, fringed pinks are easy to grow from seed and often will flower in their first year.
Carthusian pink (Dianthus carthusianorum) is a recent addition to my garden and comes with its own contemporary story. Several years ago, friends from a local horticulture society were touring English gardens and kept coming across a dianthus-that-didn’t-look-like-a-dianthus. The plant in question had grassy foliage and tall wiry stems to 24 inches, topped by hot pink clusters of small flowers—its habit was more wildflower meadow than tidy tuffet. Questions were posed, seed was shared on the spot, and a nursery man back home was entrusted to sow and grow the plants. Last summer I purchased a few of those robust seedlings and only recently settled the plants into a garden bed.
Pinks will always be a part of my garden’s story—please pick freely.
Funny how those little moments in your childhood stay with you. A totally inappropriate way for that teacher to have handled the situation. We grow lots of dianthus here in my dry climate. They thrive in almost no soil and don’t require watering. So many different shapes, colours and scents. What’s not to love?
Shame on that teacher! I also love “pinks” and appreciate the info.