Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dianthus Aplenty

There are lots of dianthus at Roche Fleurie, both species and cultivated varieties. We like them very much and, perhaps more to the point, they like the garden with its basic well-drained soil.

From a botanical point of view, there are many species and cultivars of dianthus, but for a gardener's purposes, there are basically three kinds:  the pinks, the Maiden pinks and the Sweet Williams. Carnations are, of course, dianthus, but they really are grown as cut flowers and are not adapted to growing as a border plant.

Most dianthus bloom in late spring, roughly at the same time as peonies, but for a longer period. Dianthus are not only attractive, but also very fragrant, very hardy (some survive in zone 2) and low maintenance plants.

Assortment of pinks

Sweet Williams

Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus) are the most straight forward of the lot in the sense that they vary little compared to the others in the tribe. There is not even much difference between the double and single flower varieties.

Sweet Williams

They grow best in some shade, are biennial and have a fine clove-like fragrance. You plant them one year, and they flower the following year. They die after they have bloomed.

Many people will swear that their Sweet Williams are perennial, that theirs have bloomed over many years. What happens is that their plants simply reseed themselves. The blooms grow in clusters at the end of stems.

Sweet Williams

They are quite tough. I have seen some bloom on abandoned homesteads where no one had taken care of them for decades. The ones below have just jumped the garden fence and settled in the field. When they "go wild", each plant produces only a few flowers, but they continue to self-seed year after year, competing with the grass.

Sweet Williams bloom after the pinks (perhaps because they are usually grown in some shade). To make sure you always have some nice ones, you should buy new seeds every year. You can save your own seeds and plant them, but over time the flowers will tend to be all the same color (as in the picture below as opposed to the picture above).

Dianthus "gone wild" fighting its place among the weeds

Maiden pinks

Maiden pinks

 The second kind, the Maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides), are shorter than Sweet Williams and form a mat of small flowers. Like pinks, they prefer alkaline, well drained soil, but unlike pinks they will put up with some shade. They are perennial and come back year after year. In fact they will selfseed, and new patches will appear along the old ones.

Close up of Maiden pinks, above is 'Arctic Fire' below one of numerous varieties that have hybridized on their own in the garden
Although they self seed, Maiden pinks are easy to control. You just pull up the extra ones.  They crossbreed a lot, and over the years the self-seeded patches will tend to be reddish-pink with less varied colors (as in the picture below) than what you get when you buy commercial seeds or a named varieties. They bloom just as the cottage pinks are fading, about the same time as the Sweet Williams.

Maiden pinks that have self seeded



The pinks, or Cottage pinks (Dianthus species and hybrids) are sun lovers. They do not do well in shade. At Roche Fleurie their heights vary from the very small to plants that reach about 1 foot (30 cm). Apparently they even get taller.

Two varieties of pinks

The flowers are usually single, but many named varieties have double flowers which look like miniature carnations (as is the case with 'Tiny Rubies' below).

Cheddar pink 'Tiny Rubies'

Pinks can be any color between white, pink and red, but, as you might have guessed, they are mostly pink! There is one exception, the Amur River pink (see below) which is almost blue.They also tend to crossbreed a lot. I have grown 4 or 5 times, from seeds received from rock garden societies seed exchanges, the variety 'La Bourboule'. Since none of the plants that came up were the same, I presume they had hybridized in the gardens where the seeds were grown. 

I include in the pinks all the species although some of them have a slightly different look.

Buns in a trough

Pinks tend to make a symmetrical dome. When they grow quite densely, they produce tight little clumps that rock gardeners call buns. Most of them also have a strong, beautiful fragrance.

Two more varieties of pinks

Pinks have crisp, grey foliage which add to their year-long interest (Sweet Williams and Maiden pinks have green foliage). "Run of the mill" pinks tend to be long-lived, but "fancy" named varieties do not usually survive their first winter in your garden.

"Fancy" dianthus, the bottom variety is 'Velvet & Lace'

As long as the soil is well drained, dianthus are usually disease free. To end with, on the left the first one to bloom at Roche Fleurie and on the right the last one to bloom over a month later.

Alpine pink on the left and Amur River pink on the right


  1. You have a lovely collection of Pinks. When I was a child, the pinks in my grandfather's garden charmed me. They formed a tight blue-green pincushion, about a foot high, topped by bright pink flowers. I've tried a number of pinks over the years, but none have quite seemed the same as those long ago pinks. Perhaps it is my memory that is faulty.

  2. What a fantastic selection you have, they are all so beautiful! I just have a couple as my soil is the acid side of neutral clay so I grow mine in troughs where I can adjust the soil to their liking. You've made me think that I should be able to squeeze a couple more in !

  3. I have read the introduction to your blog Alain and finding the type of soil or rock you are on your Dianthus must think they have found heaven. Have you tried Sweet William 'Sooty'? I thought it was like most Sweet Williams and was going to rip it out until I realised that it is really a true perennial.

  4. I think the pinks are one of my favourites. You've got a great collection.

  5. How lovely Alain. Your photographs are beautiful. And I think dianthus are much under-rated.

  6. I love dianthus as well Alain. Only the problem is that dianthus barbatus does not grow on second year after flowering, and I always forget to collect its seeds!
    But other dianthus are lovely!

  7. Interesting post. I don't grow any pinks but I have thought of it occasionally, we certainly have the alkaline soil.

  8. Very pretty quartet of pics! I LOVE Sweet William.

  9. Hello Alain, gosh, I didn't know that Sweet Williams are in the same family as dianthus, they look completely different. I am much more familiar with the "Cottage Pinks" type of dianthus that smell strongly of pepper, cloves and other spices. I plan to have them in the new garden as they are quite easy to take cuttings from, which is just as well as they tend to go leggy after a while, from reading your post, perhaps that's because the soil is too rich and moist for them?

    1. I would agree with you. Because here in full sun and poor basic soil they do not get leggy. They self seed.


Thank you for leaving a comment