Brought to Britain by refugees and cultivated by florists’ societies, long-flowering pinks are renowned for their spicy perfume
Some plants have an immediate, shout-out-loud appeal, others beguile us more slowly. For many years I thought pinks, those low-growing, carnationlike flowers that sit over cushions of grey foliage, to be old-fashioned and too much fuss for too few flowers. I had seen far too many of them during my childhood in the gardens of older relatives to want them in my garden.
It took a collector of pinks to open my eyes to their beauty and to challenge my prejudices. Plant collectors are often eccentric, sometimes geeky but always passionate ambassadors for their plants and it was one, the late Mark Trenear, who showed me the beauty and the history of pinks and, importantly, how they could find a place in the garden.
The genus Dianthus includes carnations and sweet williams as well as pinks. Sweet williams are biennial plants with domed heads of small flowers. Seed mixes usually produce plants with a range of pink and magenta flowers.
The distinction between carnations and pinks is sometimes blurred. Carnations are descended from Dianthus caryophyllus, a species from southern Europe and North Africa, and tend to produce large flowers on tall stems. To look half-decent in the garden these plants need a lot of support and the palaver involved in staking individual stems means that they have fallen out of favour with most gardeners. Carnations are now mainly grown by the cut-flower trade.
Pinks are descended from Dianthus plumarius and are much more compact plants that require no staking and no great horticultural skills for them to flourish. Most of all, however, the flowers have a heady perfume, usually of cloves and other spices. One whiff and you will understand immediately why their popularity has endured.
Pinks have been grown in European gardens for more than 500 years. Raphael’s devotional painting Madonna of the Pinks, painted in 1507 shows mother and child playing with the flowers. In the 17th century many new varieties of plants, including pinks, arrived in Britain. Refugees fleeing persecution, including Huguenots from France, brought with them many varieties of pinks. New plants were bred by plant collectors and florists’ societies.
One of the most important groups in the development of pinks is the Paisley Florists Society, the majority of whose members were weavers who bred distinctive bi-colour flowers, often with fringed petals that became known as Paisley pinks. It is impossible to say for sure that all the old pinks, or heritage pinks, around today are exact descendants of those grown in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they do evoke the flowers that were prized during that period. Dianthus ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ was first recorded in 1690. The centre of the flower is deep red and the fringed white petals have a red stain to their tips. Another old cultivar, Dianthus ‘Dad’s Favourite’, is reputedly a survivor of the Paisley pinks. The centre of the flower is beetroot red and each of its white petals is edged with a broad red line. The majority of pinks are at their peak during June and July and flower just once. At the beginning of the 1900s plant breeders developed repeat-flowering hybrids. Montagu Allwood produced a range of long-flowering pinks that were originally known as Dianthus x allwoodii – now known as Dianthus Allwoodii Group – and the best-known of these, Dianthus ‘Doris’, a double pink flower with a raspberry centre, is still widely available.
Pinks have traditionally been grown around roses but be careful that the rose foliage doesn’t overwhelm the pinks. Around the front of a border they mingle well with Allium senescens subsp. glaucum, a low-growing allium with similar blue-grey foliage to the pinks. I have also seen pinks charmingly partnered with the nodding flowers of Allium cernuum. I always grow a few in pots so that I can bring them close to the house to enjoy the delicious perfume. I am not quite the nerdy collector, but I might be on the way.
Allwoods All of the dianthus images for this month’s plant profile were taken at Allwoods in West Sussex. This specialist nursery was established by Montagu Allwood and his two brothers in 1910. Montagu bred several new varieties of pinks, many of which are still produced at the nursery that was given a new lease of life in 1994 when it was taken over by Emma and David James (above). allwoods.net