Carnation Flower Meaning and Symbolism

Carnations have a lot of weighty symbolism for such a delicate-looking, petite flower. We often use them to celebrate graduations and a new chapter in life. 

We also use them in corsages, where they embody good luck and protection, which is a tradition dating back to Ancient Greece. However, this isn’t everything that these enigmatic flowers symbolize.

Keep reading to discover more about the meaning behind these gorgeous flowers.

Behind the Name: What does ‘Carnation’ Mean?

The word carnation dates back to at least 2000 years ago, mentioned in ancient Greek literature. 

There are several sources for where the flower name comes from, but one that’s particularly interesting is the Latin word caro, which means ‘flesh’, referring to the natural pink which resembles tissue.  

They are also called pinks, which refers to the ruffled appearance of the petals, referencing how they look like they were cut with pinking shears.

What do Carnations Represent?

Thanks to the myriad of colors carnations can appear in, there’s lots of different meanings attached to these gorgeous flowers. 

There is some general symbolism as well, which usually involves affection and devotion. During the Renaissance, many famous artists would include carnations in depictions of engagements.

What do Red Carnations Suggest?

Red carnations embody a deep admiration for someone, and darker shades have connotations of love, passion, and desire. The darker the flower, the deeper the emotion.

What do White Carnations Mean?

White carnations are symbolic of grace and innocence, like most white flowers, but they are also believed to promote good fortune.

What do Yellow Carnations Signify?

Yellow carnations have a less positive meaning. Unlike most yellow flowers, which are symbolic of positivity and platonic affection, yellow carnations stand for disappointment, rejection, and even jealousy. 

What do Pink Carnations Symbolize?

Pink carnations represent grace, innocence, and gratitude. 

What is the Cultural Significance Behind the Carnation Flower?

Carnations are also known as Dianthus, which refers to the Roman goddess Diana. There are several versions of this legend. 

The first is that Diana stumbled upon a shepherd youth, and liked him immediately. Unfortunately, he was only interested in not losing his sheep. 

In a slightly different version, she had been on an unsuccessful hunting trip, and he was the first thing she could take her rage out on.

Furious beyond all reconciliation, and used to people making vows to her and begging for her favor, she ripped out his eyes. Diana threw them to the ground, where they became carnations.

The carnation is also the flower of Jupiter, or Jove. In Ancient Rome, people would often grow carnations in his honor, and leave them as offerings to him. 

In the Netherlands, white carnations are a symbol of Prince Bernhard, who wore them during WWII, as well as commemorating veterans.  

You’ll also find carnations featured in many forms of art across the world, notably in poetry and in paintings.

Green carnations are worn to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. 

In 1892, it became a symbol of homosexuality. Oscar Wilde and a few select friends went to the opening night of his comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan, where they all wore green carnations.

From then on it became a message not dissimilar to the Victorian language of flowers, where the green carnation was a secret confession of being a man who only loved men.

What does a Carnation Tattoo Mean?

Carnations are a popular tattoo subject, as the flower is widely regarded as beautiful, and holds a lot of symbolism. Like with the flower itself, a tattoo of a carnation can determine the meaning behind the tattoo.

A pink carnation within a tattoo usually represents an unwavering love for someone or holding to an ideal. 

Pink carnations also have connotations with Mother’s Day across the world, so it can symbolize the love you have for your child, or for your mother.

A red carnation symbolizes passion and love, perhaps representing someone specific, or a love for a hobby which has helped shape your life. 

When is it Appropriate to Give Someone Carnations?

Carnations are most often given to celebrate milestones and achievements, as well as illustrating your love for someone. 

They are such an attractive cut flower that they are readily available nearly all year-round, and they are worthy of any gift as they last such a long time. 

They are appropriate for nearly any occasion, but it’s worth noting that there are a few occasions in some cultures that they aren’t suitable for.

As yellow carnations can represent disappointment and rejection, it’s a good idea to choose a different color, for example, if someone’s just confessed their undying love and or commitment to you. Unless, of course, that’s your way of letting them down!

In France, purple carnations are a funeral flower, so they wouldn’t be appropriate for a birthday, for example. 

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