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Divine Dianthus

By Audrey Stallsmith

dianthus deltoides and superbus

The fairest flowers o' the season
Are our carnations and streaked gillyvors.

William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

Shakespeare's Perdita finished the above comment startlingly with the phrase "which some call nature's bastards." Although carnations and gillyflowers ("pinks") were second only in popularity to roses during the Middle Ages, they were also the first flowers to be widely grafted and hybridized. That raised some questions about paternity!

In fact, Perdita declines to have gillyvors in her garden, since their beauty owes so much to art rather than to nature. In what sounds like a very modern dispute, Polixenes chides her for this attitude, pointing out that hybrids could not be created without nature's cooperation.

To add to the confusion, the ancients also called several other fragrant flowers from different families by the same name. Stocks (matthiola) were "stock gillyflowers," wallflowers (cheiranthus), "wall gillyflowers," and sweet rocket (hesperis), "Queen's gillyflower."

Back then, people had an equally relaxed attitude toward spelling, with the word being written as gylofre, gillofloure, gelyflower, gelouer, gelefleure, and even July flower. The term is supposed to be a corruption of the French giroflee, which means "a clove."

In this article, however, I will confine myself to the "clove gillyflowers" or dianthus, also known as carnations, sops in wine, pagiants, blunket, or, strangely enough, "horseflesh."

Explanations for the plant's common names vary as widely as the spelling. "Carnation" may spring from "coronation," since the flowers were often used in chaplets. As the poet, Drayton, put it:

The curious choice clove July flower,
Whose kind height the Carnation,
For sweetness of most sovereign power,
Shall help my wreath to fashion.

On the other hand, the name might equally well have come from the Greek carnis or "flesh," in reference to the flower's original color. Another possibility is the Greek incarnacyn or "incarnation," since dianthus literally means "divine flower."

According to tradition, pinks sprang up from the tears Mary shed as she followed her Son to Calvary. So the pink carnation, the official symbol of mother's day, stands for maternal undying love.

The term "pinks" may derive from the German pinksten or pfingsten, or from the "pinked" (jagged) edges of the blooms. It did not come from the hue, since the color "pink" was named after the flower--and not the other way around!

Almost all members of the dianthus family have a heavenly countenance and scent. Despite their delicate appearance, these are very tough flowers! They sprout easily from seed, require only well-drained limey soil with lots of sun, and are seldom bothered by bugs or disease.

Some of the best-known members of this robust clan are dianthus barbatus (Sweet William), dianthus caryophyllus (carnation or clove pink), and dianthus plumaris (cottage pink).

The ancients solemnly vowed that the flowers would take on any perfume in which their seeds were steeped before planting. The "sops in wine" nickname derives from an old custom of flavoring spirits with red carnations. I have grown a variety called Fenbow's Nutmeg Clove, which was supposedly used for that purpose. The reds were preferred because they have the best scent, with the more modern yellows having the least.

Dianthus flowers also spiced up soups, salads, sauces, jams, and vinegars. They were said to "prevail against pestilential fevers and comfort the heart." They are known as Qu Mei in Asian, where they have been used to relieve rheumatism and arthritis, and to kill harmful bacteria in the stomach.

The meaning of the flower varied with the color. A dark red carnation sighs, "Alas for my poor heart." A striped variety signals "refusal" and a yellow one "disdain."

Clove gillyflowers seem to have experienced some decline in popularity since the Middle Ages. As with women, flowers that are too "easy" are often scorned! That is unfortunate, since the dianthus literally has it all: beauty, scent, amiability, and durability. So I would recommend, as did Polixenes, "Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,/ And do not call them bastards!"

Dianthus deltoides and superbus image is from Bilder ur Nordens Flora by Carl Lindman, courtesy of TAMU's Vascular Plant Image Library.