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Symbols of love

Just now, our pinks and carnations (Dianthus spp.) are flowering well – quite an achievement considering that the midday temperature is hovering around 40C these days.

They were grown from seeds brought from London a few years ago and have thrived both in the borders and in pots. The potted ones are a great addition to the garden – I move them around every so often to create a new feel to a tired spot and they cheer me no end.

The flowers bring an eye-catching splash of colour to the edge of our beds, from soft pink through salmon-red to deep crimson. Some varieties have red flecks; others are pure white. All share a sweet scent, pretty rather than luxuriant, often with overtones of cloves, especially Dianthus caryophyllus. The Arabic name is qaranful – a word that means both carnation and clove.

Dianthus have been cultivated and treasured for millennia. The Greek dianthos means “flower of God” and in ancient Greece the blooms were woven into garlands for festive occasions. For two thousand years, the properties of carnations – especially D. chinensis – have been tapped in Chinese medicine to treat a whole range of conditions from high blood pressure to urinary tract infections. Used externally, this species can help in the treatment of eczema and skin inflammations.

And there’s another aspect to these multi-faceted plants: art. As a symbol of love, both divine and earthly,  the “flower of God” was often associated with the Virgin and child in the European tradition of painting; it also appeared in betrothal and marriage portraits. Further east, carnations were made to arc gracefully around Ottoman Iznik ceramics and to bloom gloriously in their textiles. Dianthus has been part of the fabric of our lives for centuries.

In the Jasmine garden we have a white flowering variety in the new herb bed (more on the expanding empire next post). This is a nod to Dianthus’ role in herbal medicine – although it isn’t the right variety – as well as a way to add interest to the bed.

Moving the white carnation

It may be somewhat wide of the mark, but I tend to think of Dianthus as a particularly English flower. Partial to alkaline soil, and thus happy in the chalk-lands of southeastern England, pinks and carnations seem to cope well with unpredictable weather, producing copious flowers for weeks on end and scenting the air on hot sunny days.

I’m never quite sure if I should cut them, however. As each new flower unfurls from a tight, grey-blue bud, full of youthful life and purity, I think it better to leave it be: too precious to cut.

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