By Maryann Readal
Dianthus is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for April. The timing is perfect as the weather is beginning to be spring-like, and these plants are now available in our garden shops. The Greek botanist, Theophrastus (371-287 BCE), is credited with giving these flowers their name. He combined the Greek word for dios, “divine,” with anthos, “flower” and came up with dianthus. Dianthus have been cultivated and bred for over 2,000 years, and many different colors and flower types have been developed along the way. With successive breeding, however, many of the cultivars have lost their native clove-like scent.
The old-fashioned plant that our grandmothers called pinks, Dianthus plumarius, can be a perennial or an annual. It is a compact, evergreen, clove-scented, low-growing species of Dianthus. Like other Dianthus, it prefers an alkaline soil and plenty of sun. The perennial variety blooms later than the annual plant, which blooms in early spring. It makes a nice border or rock garden plant and blooms better if the spent flowers are removed. It can be propagated by seed or with cuttings.
“And in my flower-beds, I think, Smile the carnation and the pink.”
– Rupert Brooke
There are several ideas why these plants are called pinks. One idea is that the edges of the flowers look as though they were cut with pinking shears. Another idea is that the name derives from the German word pfingsten, which was the German name for flowers that bloomed around Pentecost (Ecavade,1998).
Dianthus caryophyllus is the botanical name for the flower we call carnation. It has been in cultivation for over 2,000 years and is native to the Mediterranean region. Other names for this flower are gillyflower or clove pinks because of the clove-like scent of the original flower. Carl Linnaeus described the plant in his Species Plantarum in 1753 and gave the plant its botanical name.
Carnations are an edible flower, if they have not been sprayed with chemicals. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the flowers were used to flavor wine, earning the nickname “sops-in-wine” (Belsinger and Tucker, 2016). They are also one of the 130 herbs and aromatic plants used to make the French liqueur, Chartreuse, which is still the only naturally green liqueur in the world today. While we do not use them to flavor wine today, they are used as an edible, decorative flower and can be made into syrup or candied. The petals can be put into salads, vinegars, and sauces.
It is thought that the common name, carnation, came from the Latin word for the crown, corona, worn during Roman and Greek ceremonies. Another theory is that the word came from the Latin word for flesh, caro, referring to the natural color of the native flower. In religious symbolism, the flower represents “God made flesh in Jesus” or the incarnation. To carry through with the religious symbolism, it is said that the carnation sprung from the tears Mary shed during the crucifixion. The carnation is a frequent artistic floral motif in mosques and Islamic art.
The carnation holds considerable importance as a symbol today. Indeed, the colors of the flower carry special meanings in the floral industry. Red flowers symbolize love. White flowers mean true love and good luck. Pink carnations are a symbol of a mother’s love and are the Mother’s Day flower. Yellow carnations mean disappointment and rejection (Escavade, 2020).
Carnations have also been used to give additional meaning to political events. The red carnation was the symbol of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution when the authoritarian regime was overthrown in 1974. In some countries, it represents the socialist worker’s movement and is often used during May Day demonstrations. In Azerbaijan, red and pink carnations memorialize the people’s uprising against the Soviet crackdown in January, 1990. The red carnation has become a symbol of that tragedy, now christened Black January. The red carnation is the state flower of Ohio. It was chosen to honor Ohio Governor and United States President William McKinley who wore a red carnation until his assassination in 1901. The red carnation is the national flower of Spain, Slovenia, and Monaco.
At Oxford University, some students wear carnations while taking their exams. A white carnation is worn on the first day and red on the last day of exams. Pink carnations are worn on the exam days in between.
The essential oil is also used in making the French perfume, L’air du Temps. Dianthus caryophyllus can be found in European herbal medicine to treat coronary and nervous problems.
Carnations are perennial to Zone 6. They prefer well-draining, alkaline soil in full sun and bloom from summer into the fall. Again, deadheading of the flowers is the key to continuous blooming. As a cut flower, carnations are long-lasting.
And then there is Dianthus superbus, which grows in China, Japan, and in some parts of Europe. This Dianthus is called qumai in Chinese, and the flowers are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Its use was first mentioned in the 1st century CE in the Chinese herbal, Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica. Qumai is still used today to treat kidney stones, urinary tract infections, constipation, and dysmenorrhea.
Researchers are investigating the medicinal potential of this Dianthus species. Recent research indicates that its components may be effective in treating airway inflammation due to asthma (Shin, 2012). In a recent review of the plant, authors concluded “the traditional applications of Dianthi herba have been confirmed, including the treatment of urinary tract infection and dysmenorrhea” (Liu, 2022).
Dianthus superbus can be grown as an annual or perennial and can be propagated by seed or cuttings. Like other Dianthus, it prefers well-draining, alkaline soil in a sunny location. The flowers are harvested just before they open for medicinal applications.
This article would not be complete without at least a mention of Dianthus barbatus, sweet William. This short-lived perennial or biennial species is very different in that it has a cluster of dianthus-like flowers sitting on top of a one to two-foot stem. The cluster attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. It is a favorite plant in cottage gardens.
Though very little research has been done on the medical applications of sweet William, it does contain saponins. In 1596, Gerard mentioned sweet William in his plant catalog, praising its beauty but made no mention of any medicinal properties.
It is not certain how the name sweet William originated. However, it is a common name used for young men experiencing unrequited love in English folk songs. Interesting to note that when England’s Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011, Kate included sweet Williams in her bridal bouquet as a tribute to her husband-to-be (Dillon, 2021).
For more information about Dianthus, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage, https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-information/herb-of-the-month.html
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) Dianthus (pinks) flowers (Maryann Readal); 2) Chartreuse liqueur (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Ospalh); 3) Carnation flower (GNU Free Documentation License); 4) 20th anniversary of Black January in Azerbiajan (ElxanQəniyev); 5) L’air du Temps bottle (Walmart.com); 6) Sweet William flowers (Creative Commons, Andrey Korzun); 7) Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet (Dan Kitwood).
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Dillon, Rachel. 2021. Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet meant more than you think. Accessed 3/17/22. https://www.thelist.com/354146/kate-middletons-wedding-bouquet-meant-more-than-you-think/
Ecavade, Sakshe. 2020. Carnation flowers: meaning, history, symbolism & colors. Accessed 2/20/22. https://www.giftalove.com/blog/carnation-flowers-meaning-symbolism-history-colors/
Liu, Qian, et al. 2021. Dianthi herba: a comprehensive review of its botany, traditional use, phytochemistry, and pharmacology. Chin Med17:15. Accessed 3/3/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8780776/
Shin, In-Sik, et al. 2012. Dianthus superbus fructus suppresses airway inflammation by downregulating of inducible nitric oxide synthase in an ovalbumin-induced murine model of asthma. Journal of Inflammation 9:41. Accessed 3/3/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3551699/
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Sweet William. 2021. Accessed 3/4/22. https://gardening.usask.ca/articles-and-lists/articles-plant-descriptions/perennials/sweet-william.php
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.