Sandy’s Garden ... Carnations

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

January is not the easiest month of the year in which to find flowers, which are much more abundant in the summer months.

But there are a few flowers available even during this dark, cold month; and one of these is the carnation. However, gentle reader, you are extremely unlikely to find carnations flowering in the garden in the first month of the year; and the reason for that is that carnation species fall into two categories … greenhouse or garden. Yes, you’ve guessed, the carnations which can be found flowering in January are of the greenhouse varieties; and the most likely place to see them is in a florist’s shop.

The carnation is one of the two so-called ‘birth flowers’ for the month of January, making them a real favourite for inclusion in bouquets given to friends and family who have January birthdays. Believers in the so-called ‘language of flowers’ will pay heed to the colour of any carnations they offer as gifts for, according to one list of the supposed meanings of flowers, pink carnations stand for maternal love, light red carnations are an expression of admiration, dark red carnations stand for deep love and a woman’s affection and white carnations mean pure love and good luck. And, since carnations come in such a wide variety of colours, there are more entries in this list. Striped carnations in any colours stand for regret and refusal, purple carnations represent capriciousness and yellow carnations tell of rejection and disappointment. Perhaps it is as well to know, too, that carnations in general are said to express love, fascination and distinction; so, before you unthinkingly send a bouquet of carnations to anyone, just think of the meaning the recipient may read in them!

My botanical library includes a lovely little book entitled 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, written by Diana Wells and published in 1997 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. One of the hundred flowers is described in a section called Carnation, Pink, Sweet William … and that tells you quite a bit before you read another word, for the original carnations were all pink and the carnation is noted for its attractive sweet scent. Read a little further and the story unfolds. “The Greek botanist Theophrastus, who first classified plants according to their form and structure, called them ‘dianthus’ from the Greek ‘dios’ meaning ‘divine’ and ‘anthos’, ‘flower’.” And Dianthus is still the proper botanical name for this family of plants, as we can read in Wikipedia. “Dianthus is a genus of about 300 species of flowering plants in the family Caryophyllaceae, native mainly to Europe and Asia, with a few species extending south to North Africa, and one species (Dianthus repens) in arctic North America. Common names include carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus), pink (Dianthus plumarius and related species) and sweet William (Dianthus barbatus).”

We don’t know exactly when Theophrastus lived, but we do know it was between about 371 BCE and sometime around 287 BCE; and we also know that carnations have been cultivated since the beginning of recorded history, grown originally for their appealing shades of pink; subsequently, plant hybridisation has brought us the flower in virtually every colour of the rainbow from red to purple to yellow. Unsurprisingly for such a popular flower, Christian mythology has laid claim to it, a Christian legend claiming that carnations first appeared on earth where Mary’s tears fell. This invention may help to explain why the deeply-devout American Anna Jarvis … the founder of Mother’s Day … used carnations at the first Mother’s Day celebration, although the fact that carnation blooms last a long time even after they are cut and were her mother’s favourite flower may have had a bearing on her choice. Whatever the reason, carnations certainly brighten many a home during January.