Plants - Perennials

Pretty in pinks

Otherwise known as Dianthus, these scented, old-fashioned favourites are sturdy, no-fuss plants


Long cherished for their delicate beauty and spicy fragrance of sweet cloves, pinks, with their masses of flowers and handsome silvery blue or green foliage, continue to find a welcome place in our gardens.

Wild species, antique pinks and older hybrids offer a variety of landscaping opportunities in beds, borders, rock gardens and containers. Breeders continue to create more heat- and drought-resistant, earlier- and longer-blooming forms. Fortunately, their characteristic spicy perfume has not been bred out of most new cultivars.

Belonging to the genus Dianthus, which comprises about 300 species, mostly from Eurasia, pinks thrive in full sun and light, well-drained, slightly alkaline soil and bear flowers with crimped petals whose edges are fringed or serrated, as though cut with pinking shears, which may account for their common name.

The history of pinks
The history of clove pinks (D. caryophyllus)—from which carnations are descended—is preserved in their colourful name. One of a group of scented flowers known generically as gilly flowers (from the French girofle, for "clove"), they were prized by tavern keepers, who raised them as a cheap way to flavour wines; they also came to be known as sops-in-wine.

Of European origin, cottage pinks (D. plumarius), introduced to England with the Norman Conquest, are sprawling plants suited to cottage gardens (as their name suggests). Blooming once in early summer, they bear a profusion of two-centimetre-wide, feathery, pink flowers on stems up to 23 centimetres tall, on clump-forming, bluish green foliage. Amateur breeding extended the range of available colours, created blooms with contrasting bands of colour around the edges and in the centre—forming a dark eye—and increased the number of petals.

Two noteworthy antique pinks are the 18th-century, 30-centimetre-tall 'Inchmery' (Zone 4)—rare but worth hunting for in specialty plant nurseries—with its double blooms of delicate blush pink and tolerance for heat and humidity; and the legendary D. 'Mrs. Sinkins' (20 centimetres tall, Zone 5), a 19th-century double white with an almost overpowering fragrance and petals so profuse the flowers resemble little cabbages.

Less hardy than cottage pinks but ever-blooming, carnations (named for their use in coronets—ornamental wreaths worn by women on formal occasions) are stiffer, taller (to 60 centimetres) and more erect, with narrow, grey-green leaves appearing at swollen intervals along wiry stems. Larger double flowers—red, pink or white—held in a puffed calyx, are broad-petalled and serrated at their edges. Of Mediterranean origin, carnations are largely bred in North America as long-stemmed, and frequently unscented, florists' flowers. An exception is the D. caryophyllus Grenadin series, hardy to Zone 5. 'Grenadin White' and 'King of the Blacks' (very dark red) are especially fragrant (both 50 centimetres high).

In the early 1900s, pinks took on new life when Montague Allwood, an English nurseryman, crossed cottage and clove pinks to produce border pinks (Dianthus x allwoodii). Though not quite as hardy as cottage pinks, they combine the best characteristics of both: large, carnation-like fringed flowers, long-blooming and well scented, in a range of colours and forms, some eyed and banded. Classics worth looking for are D. 'Doris', soft pink with a rose eye, and 'Helen', a luscious salmon-pink, vigorous and free-flowering, both 25 centimetres tall and hardy to Zone 3.

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