Dianthus Species

The species Dianthus were introduced to England from their native European or Asian habitats. Later, they traveled from there to North America and other countries of the New World with the early colonists, but because many species are closely related and identification therefore problematical, they are difficult to find. Catalogs from time to time describe selected species, available either as seeds or plants, but there is no guarantee that the naming of these is totally reliable. Unlike heritage rose enthusiasts or specialist iris growers, few gardeners seek Dianthus species for their collections. Their importance lies rather in the genes they have bequeathed to today's plants.

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Most of dianthus are hardy perennials and some will produce flowers for a long season. As with many species, the flowers tend to be less complex than those of hybrids that breeders have created. They possess a simple beauty, timeless in its appeal. The flowers have usually only five petals, often with serrated edges; the color patterns are uncomplicated, either one clear color or showing a central eye or zone of a contrasting color.

The species

In general, Dianthus enjoy warm summers and dislike humidity. They also prefer a site with full sun and a well-drained soil.

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Dianthus alpinus
A native of the European Alps where it grows among limestone rocks, this was introduced into England around 1759 and is one of the early-blooming species. This dianthus has a dwarf, compact habit and the flowers-large, clear pink in color with crimson spots and a central eye-are borne on short stems. Foliage is dark green and is often covered by the mass of flowers. This species has been extensively used by breeders, the best-known cultivars being those of the Allwoodii alpinus group, dating from the 1920s. The plants range in height up to 10 in (25 cm) and produce mainly double flowers, in shades of pink, starting from early summer.
Dianthus arenarius
This dianthus is often called the sand pink, originated in mountainous regions of Europe. It has small, fragrant, green-tinged white flowers with fringed edges, on stems up to 9 in (23cm). Unlike other Dianthus species, the flowers stand well above the tuft-forming plants that grow only about 4 in (10 cm) high. As its name implies, this pink thrives in sandy soil and is a great plant for a rock garden.
Dianthus armeria
Originated in Europe and was mentioned in a text by the 16th-century herbalist Gerard. Also known as the Deptford pink, this species was introduced into England in the middle of the 18th century, where it now grows wild on dry banks, stony, sandy slopes and hilly pastures. Growing to about 16 in (40 cm) high and wide, the plant bears small, deep-rose flowers with petals that are diamond-shaped with blunt-ended points on diamond-shaped petals. As can be guessed from its wild habits, it is easy to cultivate.
Dianthus arvernensis
This compact, cushion plant comes from the Auvergne Mountains in central France. Easy to grow, it flowers prolifically, covering itself with a mass of sweetly perfumed rose-pink blooms. The 6-in (15-cm) stems are short and stiff. The cultivar 'Camla' has flowers of a deeper color on a plant even more compact at 4 in (10 cm).
Dianthus barbatus
It is the original sweet William known in England since at least 1573, and subsequently taken to North America where it is now a popular plant in summer gardens. A large color range of modern hybrids is available.
Dianthus caryophyllus
This dianthus is widely believed to be the sole species in the development of the border carnation, though few gardeners would recognize its original form in the full-petaled, double carnation flowers of many hues that we know today. In fact, its genes are found in most hybrids across the range of carnations and pinks. It's a tall plant that can reach a height of 24 in (60 cm) with blue-gray, glaucous foliage. The flower is single, bright magenta-pink in color, with only five petals.
Sometimes called the "divine flower," this species is also known as the "wild carnation" or "clove pink." Although its exact origins are obscure, it is a native of Europe and grows there on rocks and wall ruins.
The clove pink was once used in syrups, cordials and conserves, and was prescribed in traditional European herbal medicine for coronary and nervous disorders. The flowers, steeped in white wine, were also used as culinary flavorings and were even thought to be an aphrodisiac.
Dianthus chinensis
Known as the "Chinese pink" or "Indian pink," is another important ancestor of many of the garden varieties of carnations and pinks that we grow today. It comes from the hills and mountains of eastern Asia. Its flowers are sweetly scented, rose-red with a purple eye. Classified as an annual in colder zones, it will grow as a short-lived perennial where climate allows. Its height varies from 6-28 in (15-70 cm). D. chinensis 'Heddewigii' is a popular cultivar that grows 8-10 in (20-25 cm) high and bears lots of large, fringed flowers in various colors.
Dianthus deltoides
Often called the "maiden pink" because each stem carries only one flower, this is a vigorous, free-flowering plant through early summer. Each plant forms a mat of bright green foliage up to 3 ft (1 m) across-ideal for planting on slopes. One of the few dianthus to thrive in partial shade, its flowers are tiny and bright pink with more deeply colored markings in the center, though there are also red, paler pink and white forms. These and its many hybrids are bright, attractive garden plants. Their flowers seem to glow, especially in evening light or in a shaded corner.
Popular Dianthus deltoides cultivars include:
  • 'Albus', dwarf form, 4 in (10 cm) high, abundant, single, white flowers in early summer.
  • 'Brilliant', is a dwarf form with bright crimson flowers.
  • 'Major Sterne', has bronze foliage and carmine flowers.
  • 'Flashing Light', 6-8 in (15-20 cm) high, scarlet flowers and dark foliage on dwarf, tufted plants.
  • 'Microchips', a mat-forming plant, produces small red flowers with bright eyes; blooms three months from sowing.
  • 'Arctic Fire', white flowers with glowing red eye, 7 in (18 cm) high.
  • 'Erectus', bushy plants, red flowers in early to midsummer.
  • 'Shrimp', spreading habit, with flowers of salmon-pink.
  • Canta Libra Mixed is a strain with bronze foliage and pink, white and red flowers 6-8 in (15-20 cm).
  • 'Zing Rose', bright, strong, rose pink with darker ring around the eye of the flower. Flowers prolifically from early summer, and if sheared off, will continue flowering until the first frost. Low-growing mat 6 in (15 cm) high.
Dianthus erinaceus
This is a dwarf alpine plant, native to mountains in the Middle East and sometimes known as the hedgehog pink. Forming wide-spreading but low, prickly cushions, 2-4 in (6-10 cm) high and bearing solitary, minute, fringed rose-red flowers, it is an ideal plant for troughs or rock gardens in hot, dry areas.
Dianthus gratianopolitanus
Once this was called the "mountain pink," but now it is widely known as the "Cheddar pink," named after the district in England where it long ago naturalized and grows wild on limestone rocks. With flowers single, tooth-petaled and sweetly scented, it grows 4-6 in (10-15 cm) tall and has been used extensively in the breeding of cultivars that are low-growing and suitable for rock and scree gardens.
Cultivars of Dianthus gratianopolitanus include:
  • 'Grandiflorus', a mat-forming plant with pink flowers on 6-in (15-cm) stems.
  • 'Bath's Pink', which is more heat-tolerant than most pinks and therefore a good plant for humid areas, makes a cushion to 12 in (30 cm) and bears in summer small, pink, fringed flowers with maroon centers.
  • 'Lace Hero' has semi-double summer flowers in white with plum-colored centers. Foliage is gray.
  • 'Tiny Rubies' forms a compact clump of green foliage with tiny, deep pink, single to double flowers held on slender stems well above the foliage in early summer. A plant for the lover of miniature flowers.
  • 'Spottii' has rose-red flowers, splashed with silver.
Dianthus knappii
This dianthus has yellow flowers. It is found in parts of Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania, where it grows in grassy places and scrub. Rarely seen in gardens, it is a rather untidy plant of variable height, according to climate, and its coloring has been elusive in breeders' efforts to introduce yellow into garden pinks. Small flowers appear in clusters on stems to 15 in (40 cm) throughout summer. A selected form called 'Yellow Harmony' is available as seed.
Dianthus myrtinervius
It is another mountain plant, from Macedonia. This species forms dense mats with small, bright green leaves and single, dark pink flowers with light eyes, only 1/2 in (1 cm) across. Plant this one in a rock or scree garden, but as it grows only about 3 in (8 cm) high, make sure it is not overwhelmed by taller, more aggressive plants. Keep it trimmed.
Dianthus neglectus
This dianthus comes from the Swiss and Italian Alps, so is well suited to winter snows. The leaves are narrow, like grass, glaucous and only reach about 2 in (5 cm) high-totally overwhelmed by the quite large flowers that grow on 4-in (10-cm) stems. Colors vary from palest pink through rose to carmine and petals have a buff reverse.
Dianthus plumarius
Southern Russia is the original home of this species and its genes are present in most of the garden pinks we grow today. Those with strong traits from D. plumarius are variously called "cottage pinks," "spice pinks" or "grass pinks." A good plant for warmer areas, its petals are deeply fringed in a pale lilac-pink color.
Popular cultivars of Dianthus plumarius include:
  • 'Cyclops', with single flowers in shades of white, red or rose, blooming from late spring right through to fall on 12-in (30-cm) stems.
  • 'Spooky', a bi-color with rose centers and white edges and deeply fringed petals.
  • 'Pheasant's Eye', with single blooms.
  • 'Superbus Prima Donna', a taller plant with big flowers that are good for cutting.
  • Sonata Double Mix is a strain that gives double flowers in a varied mix of colors, also useful for cutting.
Dianthus superbus
This is the fringed pink described by herbalist John Gerard in 1596 as the "spotted sweet John." Widespread in its native habitat, extending from France and the Netherlands east to Russia and Siberia, and south to Japan and Taiwan. The conditions it likes are almost as varied as the countries of origin. One of the few dianthus that will tolerate continual moisture, it is found in damp, grassy places, on dunes, in open woods and in mountain meadows. The flowers are pale to deep, lilac pink, single and deeply fringed. Those florists of old who strove for rounded flowers must have hated it.
The blooms, produced on 18-in (45-cm) stems from late spring until midsummer, are so finely cut they resemble frilly pinwheels. Colors range from white to pale lilac, to plum and reddish violet. They are easily raised from seed, marginally perennial.
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