Garden pinks, or dianthus, are the beautiful baby sisters of the carnation clan. They have the delicate ruffled beauty and delightful scent of carnations, but their flowers are simpler and are on shorter stems (6 to 10 inches tall) that do not need staking to stay upright. Pinks and carnations are botanically Dianthus and are "perhaps native to the Mediterranean region," according to the best authorities. That's a good guess because they have the gray foliage of plants accustomed to a lot of sun, and the best guess because they have been grown in gardens since antiquity and their true origins are obscured in the haze of the past.
If there were garden "ancient worthies," dianthus would be included in their ranks. They are ancient, indeed, having adorned garlands and coronets in Greece and Rome; having survived medieval times in monasteries, where their flowers flavored wine and graced illuminated manuscripts; and having been transported to England by Norman monks, or perhaps attached to the stones that were imported for Norman watchtowers (depending on which account you believe). They became a popular flower in Elizabethan times (and in cottage gardens much later). At their zenith, several hundred varieties of pinks and carnations were offered by English nurseries, though few of those made it to our shores. Because the best kinds must be grown from cuttings, they were difficult to import (or get past strict plant quarantines), but at least a few arrived in Southern California posing as boutonnieres in the lapel of Hans Burkard. Forty years later, Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena still grows those dianthus; until very recently, Burkard was just about the only source. But during this last year, other kinds of dianthus began to appear at nurseries, perhaps heralding their return to gardens.
As early as 1578, an herbal distinguished between "coronations" and "the small feathered Gillofers, known as Pynkes, Soppes-in-wine and small Honesties" ("coronations" being the source of carnations , named for their use in ancient garlands, though other writers think "carnation" came from the flowers' resembling the color of "flesh freshly cut"). In Shakespeare's time, the smaller dianthus were commonly called gillyflowers , and before that, in Chaucer, as "gilofre," until pink became predominant. Today, most pinks are simply called dianthus .
Dianthus make a delightful addition to the late spring garden, in a sunny spot, although they may be difficult at other times of the year. Typically, they grow wonderfully the first year--spreading into a dense, gray mound several inches high and a foot or two across and covering themselves with blossoms in April and May. In summer, the plants are a low mound of gray, but by fall some of the leaves will have turned brown, and the plants are less than tidy. Shearing flowering stems as they fade in early summer helps because it encourages new growth that hides the old stems, but the brown leaves and thinning growth seem inevitable. They will probably bloom one more year, but then their days are numbered, even in good soil. So, though they are perennial plants, perhaps it is better to think of them as long-lasting annuals, much like vinca or impatiens.
In soggy, clayish soil, dianthus are doomed almost from the start. In England, they have naturalized on lofty castle walls, and that hints at their soil preference--rocky or at least gritty, with the speediest of drainage. But don't overdo it; drought is not to their liking, either. Too little water and their leaves shrivel, stems harden and though they may survive, they look too lean in comparison to the lusher growth around them.
The best advice we can offer is to add organic matter to the soil to speed drainage--maybe even some coarse sand--but then water regularly so that the soil is moist (although never soaked). Then, make sure to propagate your favorite kinds in preparation for the plants' eventual demise.
Dianthus are started anew each year from "slips" (a garden word that existed in Shakespeare's time)--short shoots that do not terminate in flower buds. These should be gently pulled off the plant so that a small "heel" of the parent stem remains to facilitate rooting. They are reasonably easy to root; simply plunge them partway into pure sand and keep them moist. Your other choice is to buy new plants every two years from nurseries, but start anew you must, because these dainty plants do not last.
Even so, they are difficult to resist. History alone gives them charm. Their scent is heavenly, and the gray foliage offers welcome relief in a too-green garden. Low and sturdy, they make an elegant edge to a flower border, and they work well alongside pavement. Pink Parfait (one of grandfather Burkard's importations), Jealousy with its green eyes, and the flaming Flamingo are generally available with only the slightest of searching. The others--including the very old cottage-garden cheddar-type, which blooms off and on all year--are available at Burkard Nurseries on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena. Almost all are fragrant; the one called Big White, for lack of a better name, is powerfully so, although it is so large (18-inch stems) as to be dangerously close to being a carnation.