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growing pinks from seed

Think Pinks! Growing Sweet William and Fringed Dianthus

Dearest Constant Reader:

You may be familiar enough with our blog to know how we feel about certain things: We think Pliny the Elder was pulling our collective legs. We love our adult beverages. We believe everyone should keep a couple of dairy goats, and we shake our fists at the heavens over confusing plant names. So we implore you to excuse us for curtly sorting out the kerfuffle surrounding the flowers commonly called "pinks."

  • Pinks and carnations are both in the Dianthus genus.
  • Pinks and carnations are often commonly called "dianthus."
  • We've seen carnations called "pinks," and "pinks" called carnations.
  • Pinks aren't always pink.
  • Somewhere in the world right this very minute, two little old ladies in floral print dresses are engaged in a physical fight over what's technically a pink, and what's technically a carnation.

Last fall, we dedicated an article to "true" carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), but two of the more diminutive—yet equally impressive—Dianthus species grouped into the "pink" crew deserve their own spotlight. So without further ado, we'd like to introduce "sweet William" and "fringed" pinks, and if we slip in the occasional "dianthus," you'll know to which plants we're referring. Should we offend your finer sensibilities by debauching their preferred common classifications, feel free to contact us with your feedback! (Our complaint department's been a bit bored lately.)

Pinks in the garden

The Dianthus species referred to as "pinks" tend to have more delicate foliage and flowers than standard carnations, though they share the same pleasant, clove-like aroma and allure to bees and butterflies. Their scale suits container gardening and gardeners who love standard carnations might want to pot or plant sweet Williams in transition areas for continuity.

Both of our pink species are good choices for rock gardens and borders, as long as they get full sun during the better part of the day and have access to regular irrigation. While they can handle short periods of drought, they thrive best with consistent moisture. Pinks require rich, fluffy, well-drained soil with a slightly alkaline pH between 6.0 and 7.5.

You'll want to keep hues and patterns in mind when selecting companions for your pinks. We can describe Sweet William's vibrant, almost psychedelic designs as "stunning" with absolutely no trace of hyperbole, and we suggest you interplant them with species that bloom in solid colors to appreciate them without being overwhelmed!

Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)

Too lazy for floral design? Grow some ready-made mini-bouquets! Unlike most Dianthus species that have flowers on individual stalks, sweet William flowers bloom in dense clusters on the tops of terminal racemes (spikes). The clusters are 4" to 8" across, consisting of anywhere from three to 30 individual one-inch blooms. Each of the broad, overlapping petals has a serrated outer edge, and some cultivars are double-flowered, meaning they have a second layer to the standard five-petaled bloom.

D. barbatus has bright green, narrow, lance-shaped leaves that grow to four inches long. Sweet William's density makes it a good foreground plant to hide leggier species.

  • USDA Hardiness Zones: Short-lived perennial typically grown as a biennial in zones 3 through 9
  • Plant height: 12" to 24" tall
  • Plant width: 6" to 12" wide
  • Bloom period: May to the first frost
  • Flower colors: White, pink, purple, and red; bicolor patterns are common
  • Growth habit: Upright, with minimal branching beneath the flower umbels

Even though individual sweet William plants don't live beyond a couple of seasons, they readily self-sow and replace themselves for a continuous "colony" of colorful plants. Some hybridized varieties, particularly those with double flowers, don't reproduce true to their type, so if you've fallen in love with a particularly fancy variety, you'll need to grow it from seed each year.

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, D. barbatus' native range is Southern Europe from the Pyrenees to the Carpathians and the Balkan Peninsula. Sweet William's specific name means "bearded," or "having long, fragile hairs.” The plant likely earned this epithet from the needle-shaped green leaves surrounding the clustered flowers.

Want to get those garden club ladies to resume pitching tea cakes at one another? Ask them how sweet William earned its common name. Nobody knows for sure, though there is one faction that insists it has something to do with William Shakespeare. Given that these unusual leaves remind us of the bard's Elizabethan collars, and D. barbatus was first introduced to English gardens around this period, we think it's a legit assumption.

Fringed pinks (Dianthus superbus)

"Superbus" makes us think of a 1970s Saturday morning cartoon series, but it's obvious to normal people that the specific name comes from the Greek word for "superb." Fringed pinks are a more primitive, wildflower-type within the Dianthus species, native to Europe and northern Asia. D. superbus' two-inch wide flowers have five clearly-defined petals. Each is severely tapered where it meets the center, fanning out to ragged—well, okay, fringed—outer edges. In some blossoms, the effect gives the illusion that the flower itself has a strikingly contrasting color pattern or filigree.

  • USDA Hardiness Zones: Short-lived perennial typically grown as a biennial in zones 3 through 8
  • Plant height: 8" to 20" tall
  • Plant width: 8" to 20" wide
  • Bloom period: June to the first frost
  • Flower colors: Lilac, pale lavender, pink, red, or white
  • Growth habit: Upright with some branching

Fringed pinks have long, narrow leaves similar to those of sweet William, but they're rarely longer than three inches. Where sweet William flowers appear in umbels, D. superbus plants branch lower on the stem, with one to three blooms at the end of each stalk.

Medicinal and culinary uses

Both species contain saponins which, in high concentrations, can cause gastrointestinal upset, but all Dianthus species are fair game for pastry decoration and the occasional salad garnish. Sweet William doesn't have much of a recorded history as a medicinal herb, but according to the non-profit conservation organization Plants for a Future, fringed pinks are steeped in tradition...pun intended. The Chinese name for D. superbus is "Qu Mai," and for two millennia, the plant's been a fixture in Chinese herbal medicine. The whole plant, either on its own or used in combination with other herbs, is used for the following applications:

  • Contraceptive and aid for menstruation
  • Treatment of urinary and bowel conditions
  • Blood pressure reduction
  • Counter bacterial infections
  • Relieve eye irritation and infection
  • Ease swelling from skin disorders
  • Reduce hemorrhoids and venereal disease sores
  • Diuretic

Here's where we remind you to cross-reference the proper use and dosage of any herbal remedy, after first clearing it with your physician. As is the case with any modern or traditional medication, dianthus may interact poorly with your current prescription regimen, and improper use could send you straight to the compost pile.

Growing pinks from seed

If you're an old hat at growing Dianthus caryophyllus, you won't be out of your depths growing pinks from seed; the process is all but the same if not a bit easier. We recommend starting them indoors 6 to 8 weeks prior to your last spring frost for your best shot at first-season blooms, or outdoors in late summer for spring flowering. You can always include them in this spring's planting routine and allow them to develop their root system for a healthy bloom next year.

Dianthus species tend to germinate best with a little humidity. If you do start them indoors, use deep, plastic-domed nursery trays, or loosely-wrapped plastic over your seedling pots. For best results, use a sterile seedling mix to discourage fungus problems.

Before you tear open your packet of pinks, be sure to add plenty of aged compost to your beds, removing any large clumps and loosening the soil to about eight inches deep. Sweet William and fringed pinks grow deep taproots and don't tolerate compact, poorly-drained soil.

  • Seed Treatment: None required.
  • Seed Depth: Surface sow your pink seeds, or cover them with no more than 1/16" topsoil. They require sunlight to germinate.
  • Seed Spacing: Plant or thin 12" to 18" apart for best growth and air circulation.
  • Days to Germination: Seedlings emerge in 7 to 21 days at 60°F to 70°F.

Use a gentle spray to keep your seeds moist when growing pinks from seed. Once the seedlings have grown three or more true leaves, harden them off outside for about a week before transplanting them outdoors.

Pests, diseases, and maintenance

Sweet William and fringed pinks are deer-resistant and, for the most part, resilient to garden insect pests, but poor drainage and overcrowding can cause crown rot and wilt.

Deadheading both species may reinvigorate bloom, but with fringed pinks, you might find it easier to shear back the plants if you were blessed with a particularly dense crop of flowers. If you want your pinks to re-seed, leave a few flower heads behind.

Pinks vs. carnations: Why not get them all at Seed Needs!

Honestly, who has time to split hairs when most gardens have room for multiple Dianthus species? You're in this for the enjoyment of healthy, vibrant plants grown from quality, fresh seeds. Sweet William doesn't care if you name one of your seedlings "Steve," and should your potted fringed pink plant respond better to "Violet," that's between you and them. Pinks really are just a type of carnation, after all, and as some famous dead dude once said, "A rose by any other name..."

We might be a little silly with our articles, but we're serious about making sure you're happy with the ornamental, vegetable, and herb seeds you purchase from us! Reach out any time to let us know how we can help you enjoy your most successful gardening season ever. Spring's around the corner and things are pretty busy around here, but we're always eager to answer your questions and offer advice!
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