The Delightful Dianthus

Cottage pinks and their carefree cousins are fragrant beauties.

| December/January 1994

  • Cottage pinks splash bright color through the garden while they broadcast a delicious scent.
    Photograph by Jerry Pavia
  • Dianthus plumarius varieties make up a cozy garden picture.
    Photograph by Pamela Harper
  • A cultivar of D. superbus.
    Photograph by Pamela Harper
  • Buds of cheddar pinks begin to open in early spring. Within a few weeks, this compact plant with its lovely blue-green foliage will put on quite a show.
    Photograph by Dency Kane
  • Cottage pinks splash bright color through the garden while they broadcast a delicious scent.
    Photograph by Jerry Pavia
  • Mrs. Sinkins.
    Photograph by Pamela Harper
  • This frilly flower is Orchid Lace, a cultivar of Dianthus superbus.
  • Inchmery
    Photograph by Pamela Harper
  • Helen is a charming cultivar of the Allwood pinks.
    Photograph by Jerry Pavia

The borders of spring haunt the dreams of winter, but it is not the upthrusting iris and the bouncing peony that comfort my January sleep; it is the humble cottage pink. Cottage pinks (Dianthus plumarius) have lent their charm to European cottage gardens since the Middle Ages, and they are equally at home in the herbary. They have woven themselves in and out of my borders since I was a child in Connecticut, and I have grown them here in Santa Fe since 1988; with soil preparation and some supplemental watering, they adapt easily to our dry conditions and alkaline clay soil. I love their pert five-petaled single flowers, like little eyes, which also come informally semidouble and voluptuously double. Their carefree, sturdy, drought-resistant foliage forms persistent grassy, spiky tufts or mats of gray to blue-green, decorative even when the plants are not flowering.

My favorite reason for growing cottage pinks is their delicious perfume, clovelike in some cultivars, a light fresh jasmine scent in others. The cut flowers will pour forth their fragrance indoors for as long as a week. Not all pinks are fragrant, though, and the perfume of even the most highly scented types may vary according to microclimate, season, and time of day. Their scent may be savored fresh in bouquets, tussie-mussies, and salads. (Entire flowers, when preserved in silica gel, make a wonderful topper to open-bowl clove potpourris, but they lose their fragrance on drying.)

Most cottage pinks flower in May and June, though occasional blooms open later in the season, particularly where summers are cool. Depending upon the cultivar, blooms measure from 1/2 to 1 inch wide, the petals usually toothed or fringed, sometimes smooth-edged. They are held at the end of their slim stems singly or in loose clusters. As you might expect, colors drift through the pinkish range, but gardeners have been crossing and selecting pinks for centuries, so cultivars exist in white, cream, pink, rose, red, scarlet, burgundy, magenta, lilac, pale yellow, salmon, buff, and orange, often with contrasting edges, stippling, or central “eyes”, or a contrasting color on the reverse of the petals. The flowers are edible (single pinks and Johnny-jump-ups make a lovely garnish for a spring salad) and in Elizabethan times enjoyed a reputation as a mild antidepressant.

Because most cottage pinks stand 6 to 12 inches tall, they are perfect for the front of the border, but sometimes I grow them in a bed of their own, making a little inland sea of perfumed bloom, to the drunken joy of hawk moths. They make an enchanting surround for old roses and a fine complement to the lavenders, sages, artemisias, santolinas, catmints, and other gray-leaved Mediterranean and Northern European herbs.

Authorities disagree as to the derivation of the name “pink”, but current scholarship suggests that the term comes from the German Pfingsten, or Pentecost, a Christian feast that frequently falls during the pinks’ blooming season. What is certain is that the color pink derives its name from the dianthus, not the other way around. It was Carolus Linnaeus, the great eighteenth-century Swedish botanist, who named the genus Dianthus, “divine flower”. The genus is now thought to embrace some 300 species and innumerable hybrids and selections, including cottage pinks, carnations (D. caryophyllus), sweet Williams (D. barbatus), and sweet Johns (D. superbus). Most of my favorite dianthuses are perennial, but sweet Williams are considered biennials or short-lived perennials and are often grown as annuals, and there are popular annual pinks as well. Hardiness varies according to cultivar. Most pinks are hardy to at least Zone 5, or 4b with protection: a winter cover of loosely piled evergreen boughs or a location that’s sheltered from the wind. Poorly drained soil kills pinks in the winter more often than cold does. All require dry feet.

A lasting fancy

Despite the relative obscurity of fragrant dianthuses among American home gardeners today, few groups of flowers have known as many centuries of popularity. In their excellent book Plants from the Past (Penguin Books, 1989), David Stuart and James Sutherland tell us that pinks were probably introduced to Britain in the early fourteenth century from France. In the Middle Ages, rents were paid with them, and royalty had their portraits painted with them. By the late 1500s, they were among the most popular flowering plants for containers, as they are in Europe today. The seventeenth century saw the beginnings of much deliberate dianthus breeding in England; in the next two centuries, hundreds of cultivars became commercially available, including the feathered or “starre” pinks, with very frilly petals and a pink eye; the “pheasant’s eye” pinks, with a dark central blotch and a soft band of color along the jagged petal margins; and the “laced” pinks, fully double flowers with strong color at the margin and base of each petal.

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