Dianthus provide variety of great cool-season flowers

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By Ted Manzer

Friday, November 2, 2018

When folks ask about dianthus I smile. It’s like asking a kid if he likes candy bars. The obvious answer is yes, but there are so many different kinds.

Dianthus is a genus with a great variety of members. Their common name is “pink,” but many are not that color. All pinks have flowers with ragged edges, almost like their petals have been attacked by pinking shears.

Dianthus are carnation relatives. In our area, most are perennial, but many types are marketed as annuals. Numerous varieties are even winter hardy when planted in containers.

Some types have solitary flowers, usually a couple inches or more across and can be from 6 inches to over 2 feet tall. These are what we generally call carnations. They can be grown in perennial gardens and are often used as cut flowers. Carnations have been cultivated for many centuries and are a florist industry staple.

Some true carnations have much smaller flowers, so we call them dianthus and not carnations. We usually reserve the carnation name for the large flowered types, whether they are tall or not.

A second old time type is called Sweet William. These are popular because they are easily established from seed. Sweet Williams are true biennials, but we usually treat them as perennials, because they re-seed themselves so freely.

A biennial is a plant that completes its life-cycle in two years. They produce a strong root system with plenty of stored energy in their first year, and they flower and go to seed in the second. Copious amounts of seed mean many new plants and the appearance of being perennial.

Cheddar pinks and maiden pinks are two other perennial types commonly used in gardens. Maiden pinks provide a delicate texture and pleasant fragrance. Cheddar pinks bestow a mass of color to a planting. Most varieties are pink.

Cheddar pinks are often used as ground covers and they form dense patches. In our summer heat they usually struggle unless soils are sandy, or they are planted in raised beds.

Another type of pink is annual dianthus. This is somewhat of a misnomer, as in northeastern North Carolina most are perennial. Some cultivars don’t persist more than a few years, but they still come back in the spring. This type usually flowers heavily.

In our locale, all dianthus species thrive and flower more heavily in cooler weather. They also perform better in sunny well-drained soils. I think that’s why they do so well in large pots with coarse artificial mix.

Dianthus flowers are also edible and are sometimes used to decorate salads. They make a delicate flavored tea too. The upper portion of the petals have sweet pleasant taste. Petal bases can be bitter. Years ago, dianthus species were widely used medicinally. They aren’t anymore.

When I was a kid I remember farm animals trying to steal Captain Kangaroo’s carnation. I assumed that meant plants were palatable, but deer and other animals usually leave them alone. I guess I can’t rely on memories from 55 plus years ago.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.