Dianthus: In the pink

by James Alexander-Sinclair

This week I've been thinking about pinks - or Dianthus if you prefer.

PInk flowers of Dianthus carthusianorumThis week I've been thinking about pinks - or Dianthus if you prefer. I was spurred into this train of thought by the arrival of a catalogue full of the things from a nursery in Sussex. Initially I dismissed pinks as terribly old-fashioned and a bit grannyish but quickly slapped myself and stopped being too much of a poncey designer. Especially as I notice that the nursery is run by a woman with a pierced eyebrow and visible tattoos: not the image one expects!

True, my grandmother did grow them, but then she also grew a lot of other things universally regarded as supremely tasteful and fashionable. Dianthus make a very charming edging plant with lots of colour (provided you like pink) and most of them are fabulously scented. If you don't like pink, your safest bet is the white double Dianthus 'Mrs Sinkins' which smells like the wrists of wood nymphs. It's one of the old garden pinks (great scent, short flowering season, most of them about 30cm high) and was originally bred in 1868 by John Sinkins (whose day job was to be Master of the Slough Workhouse - rather like the Beadle in Oliver Twist).

Interestingly, the colour pink may well be named after the flower. Pinks existed in cultivation for at least two hundred years before the first record of the word.

It's relatively simple to breed new pinks so, over the years, many variations have emerged. Singles, doubles, spotted, lace-edged, miniatures and some that are a combination of all these and look a bit like tumble-dried rosy lapdogs. One of the most famous and long flowering is D. 'Doris', which was developed just after the war and smells deliciously of cloves.

Dianthus like a sunny spot with lots of drainage. They don't like to be too crowded out and the longer flowering varieties will, with regular deadheading, keep going until the autumn. Propagation is also quite simple: take cuttings from the non-flowering shoots in the summer.

I haven't even started on alpine and annual varieties but must mention D. carthusianorum - a really good perennial, about 45cm tall, with tiny flowers on long stems as delicate as the legs of a newborn giraffe. It goes beautifully with grasses.

Unsurprisingly, pinks don't come in blue, orange or yellow - although it's possible to dye the flowers by leaving a cut stalk in ink for a while (how else did Oscar Wilde get a green carnation?)

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Gardeners' World Web User 10/09/2008 at 09:13

You are correct. Pinking shears were invented in the 14th century (pinken is a German word meaning to peck). The colour pink comes from the flower rather than the other way round.

Gardeners' World Web User 12/09/2008 at 14:29

I have a sink on the front patio by my bench. It is filled with a small dianthus that is white with a maroon ring near the middle. I do not know its name but the smell on a late Spring evening is beautiful.

Gardeners' World Web User 23/09/2008 at 14:29

At the weekend I got a lovely healthy large pot full of alpine pinks for 75p I'm going to plant them in some pebbles with some small grasses and small lavanders I'm going to look round for more alpine ones they are great value for money and really pretty.

Gardeners' World Web User 25/06/2009 at 19:55

Is it as easy as it sounds to take cuttings from dianthus? I love them (even if they're grandmotherly!) and would like to propagate some of the beautiful ones in the garden this year.

Gardeners' World Web User 19/10/2009 at 20:56

There are boxes of White miniature dianthus going cheap in our local DIY store - in surprisingly good condition! Would it be worth my while planting them now in some winter baskets or containers? If not - what's the best way to ensure they survive until they can be used for bedding out in the spring?

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