Carnations, also known as Dianthus caryophyllus, under the Dianthus genus, are fantastic, long-lasting perennial plants which produce deceptively delicate-looking flowers in a range of colors.
These particular flowers have been used as gifts for centuries, but they’ve also been a popular subject for art such as still life, as well as being loved by gardeners and poets everywhere.
More often than not, they are used for cut flowers and bouquets, providing a lot of soft structure, as well as clove-like fragrance that offsets much larger flowers.
Here’s everything you need to know about carnations, from what types are available, what might be best for your garden, and how to get the best out of these gorgeous flowers.
At A Glance: What You Should Know About Carnations
Carnations are commonly known as clove pink, pinks, or simply dianthus. These striking perennials are known as pinks for their uniquely-shaped petals, which look like they’ve been cut with pinking shears.
Carnations come in shades of pink, red, and white, but there are also bi-colored cultivars, including white and pink and red and white.
White carnations, like a lot of white flowers in general, are dyed to create artificially green, or black (see also black flowers for your garden) hues which don’t occur naturally in these flowers.
In the late 1990s, genetic engineering meant that blue carnations were now possible, thanks to extracting specific genes from other flowers which could produce blue pigment, such as snapdragons and petunias.
You can also recognize carnations by the foliage. They have a distinctive, silvery blue color, and are very narrow, ending in slight points. On older carnation plants, the stems become more woody at the base.
As carnations are widespread across the world, and have been popular plants for at least 2,000 years, no one is exactly sure where carnations originated from.
In some places, these perennials are often grown as annuals to add pops of color into a bed, border, or container, especially in places that get frost, as most carnations cannot stand exposed areas that are vulnerable to freezing temperatures.
You can get very compact varieties, as well as much taller ones which can get as tall as 4 feet high, though they will need staking throughout their lifespan to keep them supported.
The delicate stems of a taller carnation need support against heavy winds and rain, otherwise they are prone to snapping.
Types of Carnations
Many cultivars of carnations have been created over the centuries, all with different color combinations.
However, they can still be divided into three main types to make things easier when it comes to making sure you choose what’s suitable for your green space, and just as importantly, what you may like.
The Chabaud carnations are a very old type of carnation, one which was bred primarily for florists.
Chabaud carnations boast huge ruffled flowers, and the whole plant is noticeably taller at a maximum of 60cm. The flowers themselves can stretch to an impressive 8cm in diameter.
With their long stems and extended cut-flower life, it’s not difficult to see why they have been used in floristry for hundreds of years.
It also helps that these gorgeous flowers are fantastically fragranced, featuring some of the most heavily-scented carnations available.
Like all types of carnation, Chabaud carnations come in many shades, making them a perfect flower for any planting scheme.
Some Chabaud carnations have double petals, only adding to the attractiveness of these blooms. These especially work well against flowers which have some architectural form, such as delphiniums, cactus dahlias, and red hot pokers.
If you’re after a much more subtle but no-less beautiful display of delicate flowers, you might go for spray carnations. You’ll also see them labelled as mini carnations.
These carnations will get as tall as 60cm, but the flowers are noticeably smaller at about 1 to 5cm in diameter.
Spray carnations are absolutely tiny, and each plant will produce stems with many petite flowers.
These are perfect for containers, at the very front of beds, and for making the perfect minute cut flower, suitable for smaller bouquets or even corsages.
If spray carnations sound like they’re not small enough, you also have the option of dwarf carnations.
Dwarf carnations get to a maximum height of 40cm, and the flowers themselves will just about reach 8cm in diameter.
These carnations are perfect for container gardens or even balcony gardens, as they are compact but still deliver on their beauty.
Carnation Cultivars You Should Try in Your Own Garden
With so many types of carnations to choose from, it can be difficult to narrow it down. If you like the sound of all the types listed above, here are just a few cultivars to get you started in growing your own carnations.
Growing them yourself is a great way to determine exactly what you like and what you don’t, as flowers will look very different in your garden for a number of reasons than they do online or in a store.
The light you have in your garden will change the color you see in the flowers, very slightly.
How well the conditions in your garden suit the plant will determine the plant’s health, and the colors of your neighboring plants will determine whether the plant looks spectacular, or it just doesn’t fit.
Dianthus caryophyllus ‘Sunflor Beetle’
Featuring double-bloom flowers, ‘Sunflor Beetle’ is perfect for offsetting bright colors, as these flowers come in a deep, rich purple.
They also have the signature clove scent of many flowers in the dianthus genus, flowering from June through until September.
A spray carnation, ‘Rembrandt’ produces a huge amount of flowers, with deep purple blooms edged in white, really accenting the frills of each petal perfectly.
These have a shorter flowering period, from June until the end of August, but this short window is worth the dramatic display these flowers put on.
Dianthus ‘Gran’s Favourite’
An award winner, ‘Gran’s Favourite’ is perfect if you’d prefer carnations in more of a classic white, while still being unusual for its raspberry edging that highlights the shape of each individual flower.
‘Gran’s Favourite’ will provide your garden with long-lasting color, and these blooms are perfect for cut flowers, too.
Dianthus ‘Cherry Burst’
While many dianthus flowers feature the same frilled edges, this is an unusual form of carnation, as these flowers are much larger, and the petals end in points rather than ruffles.
Combine that with the bi-color of coral-pink with white tips, this variety is perfect if you want something incredibly unusual in a carnation.
How to Grow Carnations
Despite what you might assume from their delicate appearance, growing carnations is fairly straightforward. Here’s everything you need to know.
Grow Carnations From Seed
Make sure you choose well-draining compost, preferably slightly alkaline if you have it. Carnations are very easy to grow from seed, and the easiest way of doing this is to start them off indoors during spring to give them a head start.
Leave them somewhere warm and bright, and once the seedlings have outgrown their small pots, or they have gotten about 10cm tall, (whichever comes first), you can transfer them into their final place, whether that’s a bigger container, or into a bed in your garden.
Propagate Carnations from Cuttings
Carnations get straggly after a few years. It’s a good idea to take cuttings from existing plants to replace any that are past their best.
This also gives you free carnations for a different area in your garden, or you can give them to someone else as a gift.
Choose shoots that aren’t in flower, ones that are healthy. You want to cut the stems to have about 10cm worth of a cutting.
Take off the leaves of the bottom half of the cutting to direct the energy into growing roots.
Push the cuttings into a pot full of fine compost, making sure they are arranged around the edges, and the cuttings don’t touch each other.
Soak the compost, place the pot somewhere warm and bright. Once the cuttings start putting out new growth, you should put them into individual pots to keep them strong.
How to Divide Carnations
You can also divide carnations, if you prefer. Dig up the plant, divide it into segments, and replant one in its original place, and others elsewhere. Only do this every couple of years, during the autumn.
How to Make Carnations Thrive
Sunlight and Soil Requirements
Carnations need full sunlight, for at least 4 hours a day. You can get away with partial shade, but the first part is non-negotiable if you want the most flowers possible.
There is also a careful balance to strike. If you let them bake in fierce sunlight all day long, this will make the flowers wilt. You can plant them near taller neighboring plants to help mitigate this.
The soil needs to drain well, and it should have plenty of nutrients. Acidic soil will result in poor growth, so if the soil in your garden is naturally acidic, plant carnations in containers instead.
Watering and Feeding Carnations
Once established, carnations will largely take care of themselves if they are in the ground. Before they settle into the soil, you will need to water them in for a while to encourage healthy roots.
They will also need watering during hot, dry spells. Make sure you don’t overwater them, as they cannot tolerate this. Leaves turning yellow or flowers dropping prematurely points to signs of overwatering.
You can feed carnations weekly through their flowering season, and this will help sustain their growth, and put out as many blooms as possible.
Should You Deadhead Carnations?
Yes. Removing spent flowers will help the plants conserve energy, which will go into producing more flowers. It will also keep the plant looking neat and tidy.
Pests and Diseases to Watch Out For
When it comes to pests, carnations are very vulnerable to thrips. These tiny terrors feast on the sap of the foliage, as well as the blooms themselves.
If you start to see odd, silvery spots on the foliage or flowers, or black dots on the leaves, you may have a thrip infestation.
Aphids are also a nuisance. These insects mainly attack the buds which are about to open, and you’ll also find them hiding on the undersides of the leaves, and they feed on the sap of both.
Young leaves will have an odd shape, and spots will appear on adult leaves.
Powdery mildew is the biggest problem when it comes to diseases a carnation can develop.
This fungal disease tends to occur in humid conditions, and there’s not enough air circulation getting to the plant.
Make sure to water plants at the base, rather than from overhead, and ensure there’s enough air circulation between neighboring plants.