Dianthus

Dianthus sp.

They are so diverse and easy to grow that they appeal to both beginners and advanced gardeners alike. Dianthus on this list include annuals, perennials, native plant species, cultivars and hybrids. There really is a dianthus to suit every garden and every gardener. 

The genus Dianthus belongs in the carnation family (Caryophyllaceae) and there are 86 genera here with over 2200 species. Close relatives of the Dianthus include: Maltese cross, campions (Lychnis), silene, soapworts (Saponaria), snow in summer (Cerastium), and baby’s breath (Gypsophilia). There are about 300 species of Dianthus, with several hundred hybrids and cultivars.

The word "dianthus" is derived from the Greek word dios, meaning god, and anthos, meaning flower. The ancient Greeks associated these flowers with Zeus. Nearly all of the Dianthus are native to Europe and temperate parts of Asia, but there are a few that can be found in north Africa and one species that can be found throughout the arctic regions.

Dianthus are characterized by grassy, often blue-green leaves. The flowers are usually pink or purple flowers, and almost always with five petals. The petals are frequently jagged or crimped, looking as though they had been clipped with pinking shears. This is the reason most species are referred to as “pinks”. Many of them are deliciously fragrant. They hybridize extremely easily, both in cultivation and in the wild, and they are very easy to grow from seed. If started early enough, many will flower the first year from seed. Quite a number of them make excellent annuals. Florists are very fond of them, and over 100 varieties have received the RHS award of merit.

Dianthus are extremely easy to cultivate, and there are few plants that have as long a season of bloom as they do. Grow them in full sun, with good drainage. While a few are drought tolerant, most prefer moisture. If they have a flaw, it is that they tend to be rather short lived and are prone to a number of fungal and pest issues. Don't let this stop you from growing them.

They bloom profusely for a summer or two, and then usually vanish, leaving their offspring to replace them. A number of varieties are simply not hardy on the prairies, but that’s fine as they make excellent container plants and will usually flower all summer if started early and regularly deadheaded. Few plants offer as much as Dianthus and ask so little in return. Dianthus often flower for months at a time, and the sweetly scented blooms are a huge draw to butterflies. Hummingbirds are also fond of them.

Dianthus species

Dianthus amurensis, amur pink

From northern China and Siberia, this very compact species grows about 10” tall and produces large, distinctly mauve flowers with some purple shading. It is perfectly hardy, but not grown very often. It flowers over a long period if you take the time to deadhead it. It’s quite showy in the garden, especially if planted en mass.

Dianthus arenarius, sand pink

Only 6” tall, this gorgeous species blooms for months and months- often July to September! It is very compact, with beautiful pure white, fragrant flowers that are heavily cut and serrated. It is absolutely gorgeous in a rock garden. The blooms are quite starry and show up especially well in evening light.

Dianthus armeria, debtford pink

A European species that can be either annual or biennial, and rarely exceeding 12-18”. The flowers are reddish pink and only fully open in direct sun for a few hours each day. It is not a particularly attractive species, but is worth mentioning as it has naturalized in many parts of western North America and is starting to become common in ditches and disturbed sites.

Dianthus barbatus, sweet william

One of the most loved, most popular “old fashioned” perennials, but no one is entirely sure which William it was named for! The first known reference to this name was by herbalist John Gerard in 1596. Sweet williams are usually red in the wild, but they can also be pink, purple, or white. Modern forms have been made available in all these colors and more. They usually flower in their second year, and generally disappear after that. If you don't deadhead them, they self seed prolifically. Loved by both butterflies and florists, sweet williams are generally fragrant but this can depend on the cultivar. Some are more scented than others. There are a very large number of cultivars with ‘Noverna’ being especially excellent due to its vigorous growth habit and resistance to powdery mildew. ‘Wee Willie’ is an extremely dwarf strain growing to only 6” tall. It is almost always grown as an annual and is ideal for containers. A few other excellent varieties to recommend include ‘Albus’ (pure white), ‘Homeland’ (dark red with a white eye), and ‘Newport Pink’ (deep rose). ‘Sooty’ is an interesting cultivar with extremely dark red, almost black flowers. However, the flowers are much smaller than most other kinds.

Dianthus caryophyllus, carnation

One of the most popular flowers in the world, carnations are believed to be native to the Mediterranean region, but as they have been cultivated for well over 2000 years no one is really entirely sure. In the wild, the blooms are highly variable and range from pink through purple or occasionally white. They can be single or double and are sweetly scented. Modern forms of carnations can also be red, yellow, peach, or bi-colored. William Shakespeare mentioned this plant in more than one of his works, it was called the “gillyflower” then, and in the Victorian language of flowers, it could have any number of meanings. The Victorians often called it the clove pink, for its spicy scent. The carnation is the national flower of both Spain and Monaco, and it is now more cultivated for the cut flower trade than it is actually grown in gardens. Columbia is the world’s leading grower of carnations. Carnations were also among the first plants to be genetically modified. The gene for blue does not exist in Dianthus, and so by inserting genes from petunias into carnations, two brilliant “blue” forms of carnation have been developed, though they appear more purple than blue. ‘Moondust’ was introduced in 1996 and ‘Moonshadow’ was introduced in 1998. Many others have been created since. Perhaps owing to their Mediterranean origins, carnations do not do particularly well on the prairies. They are almost always available in both the perennial and annual sections, but we recommend that you don't bother with the perennial forms since they have a very poor record for surviving the winter. Having said that, you do sometimes get lucky. If you find a perennial carnation that you'd like to try, grow it in a sheltered spot and cover it with some straw or leaves for winter. The very popular ‘Grenadin’ series is probably the hardiest and available in white, yellow, red, and pink. They are also generally inexpensive, so they are worth a try. ‘King of the Blacks’ is a perennial carnation with flowers so dark red they are almost black. This one may also over-winter here. ‘Bookham Perfume’, a brilliant scarlet, is the most fragrant Dianthus on the list that may also over-winter. ‘Raspberry Ripple’, (a beautiful striped and marbled bicolor) probably won't. Annual carnations are much more reliable and do well in beds, borders, and containers. You can often buy them in the bedding plant section and it’s also fairly easy to raise your own from seed. ‘Chabaud’ is very compact, highly fragrant, and comes in a range of colors. ‘Enfant de Nice’ has longer stems and is better for cutting but the blooms are not as scented. ‘Sonata’ is a good blend of reds and pinks and is both scented and good for cutting.

Dianthus chinensis, China pink

Native to China, India, and Japan, this species grows 12-15” tall with dark red or pink flowers that may be single or double. It is sweetly scented, and it is also a very profuse bloomer that lasts an incredibly long time as a cut flower. The genes of this species can be found in many of the new, modern hybrid forms of pink but it’s seldom cultivated on its own. One exception to this is a beautiful double flowered form called ‘Black and White Minstrels’. The small, lightly scented flowers are a deep black-red with white borders. It is a smashing container plant, and hardy enough that it sometimes survives in the garden. Probably the best thing this species did was help to create ‘Corona Cherry Magic’ which is without question the best Dianthus bedding plant on this list. An AAS award winner for 2003, this cultivar produces very large flowers on short, compact plants. Flowering all summer, the gorgeous blossoms are rose, white, or pink with a very prominent cherry-red eye. Butterflies love them and so do gardeners. It is very easy from seed!

Dianthus deltoides, maiden pink

From western Europe and the British isles, this charmer can be found in dry, grassy fields and pastures wherever there is sun and good drainage. Growing 6-9” tall, it produces tiny leaves and very vivid pink to deep rose flowers in early summer. Some very good cultivars have been developed. ‘Flashing Light’ is a favorite, with incredibly showy, magenta-red flowers. ‘Arctic Fire’ is also excellent, with white blooms that have a showy pink eye. ‘Brilliant’ (hot pink), ‘Vampire’ (reddish pink), and ‘Shrimp’ (soft pink) are also excellent. ‘Zing’ has much larger flowers than the species but does not bloom as profusely. The white flowered forms don't tend to be good garden performers. Maiden pinks will self seed if allowed to do so but they will not be a nuisance.

Dianthus gratianopolitanus, cheddar pink

So named because it grows in the Cheddar gorge in England, this is now one of Britain’s most endangered wildflowers. Also found in western Europe, this species favors well drained, limestone cliffs where it grows from 3-12” tall and produces large mats of foliage crowned with fragrant, deep pink flowers. Many cultivars and hybrids have been developed from this species. ‘Tiny Rubies’ produces double, bright pink flowers that look just like tiny carnations. It is very popular in rock gardens. ‘Star Cushion’ is similar, but the flowers are dark pink and single, as well as more fragrant. ‘Spotty’ is extremely showy with large, cherry-red blooms prominently marked with white spots. A favorite would have to be the ‘Star’ series, all of which are hardy and gorgeous. ‘Spangled Star’ is brilliant red with pink spots, ‘Shooting Star’ is magenta, and ‘Neon Star’ is bright pink. Grow cheddar pinks in a site where they get good snow cover and the drainage is excellent. They are very prone to rotting in wet soils.

Dianthus knappii

From rocky slopes in Hungary and Yugoslavia, this is the only species in the entire genus with yellow flowers. Growing about 16” tall and both hardy and quite drought resistant, it has been much used in Dianthus breeding programs with the result primarily being yellow carnations. While the blooms are very pretty, they are unfortunately not very showy. We recommend planting it in mass, with something purple or blue nearby. A large clump with salvia ‘May Night’ in and around it looks especially nice. Still, the effect is subtle and this species won't appeal to everyone. Flowers appear in June and July and it actually makes an excellent cut flower. It self seeds, but not prolifically. ‘Harmony’ is an improved cultivar with larger flowers.

Dianthus plumarius, pinks

This species, often called the “modern pink”, has fathered countless hundreds of hybrids and cultivars. Any time you see pinks offered for sale with just a generic tag or variety name, this species is undoubtedly in their parentage somewhere. The flowers normally range from pink through purple, are very sweetly scented, and appear over a very long period. They are extremely easy to grow and it’s easy to become very fond of them and grow entire collections of them. Height is normally 10-18” but this too, is variable. ‘Rainbow Loveliness’ grows 12-15” tall and has highly dissected, almost shredded looking flowers in shades of crimson, pink, and white. They are highly fragrant and were deeply loved by the late British gardener Christopher Lloyd. Although perennial, it is usually grown as an annual. The ‘Parfait’ series of Dianthus grows only 8-10” tall with very large flowers in brilliant shades of scarlet, rose, and pink. They are ideal in containers and can trace their parentage back to this species. ‘Ipswich’ pinks have large flowers in a mix of purples, pinks, and lavenders and are highly fragrant and very popular. The double flowered forms of this species resemble small carnations. It’s really hard to find a bad variety. However, some of the most recommended varieties include ‘Endless Love’ (pink/red bicolor), ‘Blueberry Pie’ (mauve/white bicolor), ‘Rembrandt’ (red with a white border), ‘Passion’ (crimson, with double flowers), and ‘Whatfield Ruby’ (bright red). We also recommend ‘Eastern Star’ (red/dark pink bicolor), which is an excellent re-bloomer if deadheaded.

Dianthus repens, Northern pink, boreal carnation

The only native North American species of Dianthus, this beauty can be found throughout northern Europe and also in Alaska and the Yukon. (Where it is very rare.) Highly variable in height, it grows on tall slopes and rocky outcrops and produces bright pink, scented blooms in early spring. It is occasionally cultivated, but tends to be difficult to grow under garden conditions due to its preference for cool temperatures.

Dianthus simulans

Increasingly available from rock garden and alpine nurseries, this gorgeous little species is very slow growing and only gets to be a few inches tall. It has tiny, pale pink, scented blooms in early summer and eventually forms gorgeous little blue-green cushions. A great rock garden plant.

Dianthus subacaulis

Another little charmer for the rock garden reaching only 1-3” tall. It forms dense cushions supporting light pink flowers in late spring. It’s very pretty and wants to be evergreen, so growing it in a spot where it doesn't get good snow cover can be a problem. Although usually listed as being hardy only to zone 4, this species has done very well in gardens in both zone 2 and 3. ‘Gary Eichhorn’ is a cultivar with larger flowers and blooms about a week longer.

Dianthus superbus

Appropriately named, this gorgeous species reaches 10-20” tall and produces very feathery, highly fragrant blooms. Although pale rose to lilac is the normal color range, red also occurs. The cultivar ‘Crimsonia’ is brilliant scarlet and the scent is outstanding! A very profuse bloomer that flowers over a long period, this is well worth adding to your garden.

Hybrid Pinks

Many cultivars that are available have parentage so complex that it’s hard to tell which species they come from. The hybrid pinks, some of which are listed as Dianthus x allwoodii, vary in hardiness but are great garden plants regardless of whether or not they survive. Don't be afraid to try any of them! Some of our recommendations include:

‘Firewitch’- An introduction from Germany that was named the 2006 perennial of the year. Very hardy and flowering all summer, it has fragrant, light purple flowers and only grows about 10” tall. ‘Wicked Witch’ is very similar but the flowers are pink and it doesn't flower quite as profusely.

‘Hot Lips’- Introduced from Thompson and Morgan in 2013, this extremely compact variety has white flowers heavily marked in purple-maroon. It is a profuse bloomer and perfect for containers.

‘Elegance’- Available in pink or lavender and growing 18-24” tall, this variety is well branched and very heavy blooming. Flowers all summer and excellent for cutting. Light fragrance.

‘Ideal’ Series- One of the very best Dianthus series to use for summer bedding. Plants grow 8-10” tall and spread 12-14” wide. They bloom all summer in a wide variety of colors including white, red, pink, rose, violet, and lavender. Very heat tolerant and quick to flower.

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