Dianthus is long-blooming and copes well with heat and rain

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Dianthus Jolt 'Pink Magic' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaDianthus Jolt 'Pink Magic' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaDianthus is an old-fashioned flower which has always been favoured by gardeners because it is a tough little annual with the most irresistible flowers. It is also easy to grow and can be planted almost throughout the year in South Africa, because it not only withstands our summer heat and heavy rainfall, but is also frost hardy.

But did you know that dianthus is one of the earliest cultivated flowers and has been revered for centuries? The name is derived from a combination of the Greek words “Dios” (god) and “Anthos” (flower) or “Flower of the Gods.” Dianthus were so important to the ancient Greeks and Romans that they were added to celebratory garlands, and were often featured in the ornate friezes adorning important buildings.

This small plant always fascinated plant breeders, but it was a little disappointing because it had a very short blooming season, but luckily for gardeners, in 1971 a breeder learned how to grow forms that did not set seed and which therefore had a longer flowering season. And so the love affair between dianthus, gardeners and breeders alike continues, and today we are truly spoilt for choice, with gorgeous compact types varying in height from 15 to 25cm, depending on the variety.

Dianthus 'Pink Kisses' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaDianthus 'Pink Kisses' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaThe blooms of these new garden hybrids often have frilled or zigzag edges to their petals, and come in outstanding hues of salmon, pink, red, violet and white, and in lovely clear colours as well as bi-colours. And, because dianthus belongs to the family of plants which includes carnations, like carnations, they are characterized by their spicy fragrance, with notes of cinnamon and clove. Unfortunately, due to hybridisation for other characteristics, they often lose their scent, so if you specifically want a highly scented variety, sniff the flowers first before selecting your favourites. With a little TLC these little plants can bloom all season long.

Considering their colour range, it’s easy to see why Dianthus chinensis picked up the common name “pinks,” and as a side note, the verb “to pink” was popularized in the fifteenth century, and means “to finish an edge with a scalloped, notched, or other ornamental pattern” - just like the edges of these pretty pinks. 

Dianthus is a genus of flowering plants in the family Caryophyllaceae, a name derived from the Greek for clove tree, and a reference to their clove scented flowers. This family is commonly called the “pink family” or “carnation family” and consists of 300 species, most of which are native to Europe and Asia, with a few indigenous to North Africa, and one alpine species which is native to the arctic regions of North America. South Africa even has a beautiful one called “Dianthus mooiensis” which is available from indigenous growers online. 

Pinks (Dianthus chinensis) is a species of dianthus which has a large distribution area from eastern Europe to East Asia, which includes not only China and the northern parts of India, but also south-eastern Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Korea. It grows wild in a wide variety of habitats including sandy forest margins, dry hillsides and summits, grasslands and scrubby mountain slopes, rocky ravines, meadows and alongside streams.

Flowers within this genus include 3 extremely popular garden favourites: Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), Pinks (Dianthus chinensis), and Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus).

Dianthus 'Diamond Mix' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaDianthus 'Diamond Mix' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaIn the Garden:

Pinks are excellent value for money, and their ease of growth, combined with their long flowering season, make them one of the most attractive summer or winter flowering plants to liven-up flower borders and rockeries. They are essential in mixed containers like hanging baskets or window boxes, are long time cottage garden favourites, a ‘must have’ for scented gardens, and particularly lovely when mixed with roses, scented geraniums and lavender.

Summer or winter flowering annuals, including pansies, violas, petunias, snapdragons, stocks, salvia, delphiniums, verbena, and zinnia will compliment dianthus beautifully, and their colours also look wonderful against the soft grey leaves of groundcovers like lamb’s ear.  

When it comes to companion plants for pinks, look for plants that share the same growing conditions. For example, dianthus prefers bright sunlight and well-drained, dry soil, so plants that like shade and moist soil aren’t good companion plants for them.

Like their close relative, the carnation, pinks are excellent cut flowers, and even though their stems are much shorter than carnations, they are delightful in small bouquets.

Dianthus 'Diana White' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaDianthus 'Diana White' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaCultivation/Propagation:

Pinks are tough, long-blooming little annuals which cope well with heat and rain. They do not like high humidity, but otherwise they will grow well throughout most of South Africa, provided they can be watered regularly. Regular watering is especially important in summer, if they are grown in the winter rainfall regions. Pinks are also hardy to frost, making them very versatile in inland gardens, and one of those annuals which can be planted all year round.

Plant them in full sun, or at least 6 hours of sun a day, and although dianthus are adaptable to most fertile, well drained garden soils, they thrive in slightly alkaline soil, so if your soil is acid, treat it with agricultural lime before planting. When transplanting seedlings be very careful to plant the same level they were growing in the pots - planting too deep will almost certainly cause the death of the plants. Correct spacing of your plants is also essential to ensure good air flow around the leaves, so check the label to find the growers recommendations.

After they have had their first flush of flowers, if you cut back your plants by about one third and remove the dead flowers, they will be blooming again in no time. Fertilising every 4 to 6 weeks with any feeder for flowering plants will also encourage repeat flowering through the season. At the end of the season, be it winter or summer, the little plants will lose their vigour and will need replacing.

Buying trays of seedlings to transplant is probably the most convenient for most gardeners, however, if you wish to grow dianthus from seeds, sow them in spring or autumn, and cover lightly with soil after sowing. The best soil germination temperatures are between 18 and 24°C, and under these temperatures, and if the seed is fresh, germination should take place within 3 to 7 days, and the plants should be blooming within 12 to 18 weeks.

Dianthus 'Telstar Mix' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaDianthus 'Telstar Mix' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaProblems, Pests & Diseases:

New species are bred for disease resistance, and are mostly problem-free, and if you cater to their needs, they will be well prepared to combat attack.

Powdery mildew forms on the leaves in warm, humid conditions. Provide proper ventilation and destroy any affected plants, or treat with a fungicide. Dianthus also does not like ‘wet feet’ so ensure that your soil has perfect drainage. 

Rust can be prevented by providing adequate ventilation. Remove and dispose of any leaves infected with rusty or brownish marks on them, or treat with an application of copper oxychloride. Infected plant matter should be thrown in the garbage, not added to the compost pile.

Aphids sometimes feed on the stems and may be easily controlled with a sharp spray of water from a hose, or with ladybugs which serve as a natural predator.

Carnation flies sometimes lay their eggs on the foliage, burrowing into the leaves and creating pale “tunnels.” Companion planting with garlic or spraying with a garlic tea will eliminate flies and their larvae.

Warning:

This plant has low severity poison characteristics, and can cause low toxicity only if eaten. If skin irritation occurs it is minor or lasting only for a few minutes.