Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dianthus - the sweetest perennial of all

Perfect to edge a walkway these maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides)
will fill the air with their spicy scent.
Photo credit; Van Meuwen

There are times when you need a little ‘something’ to fill a particular spot in the garden. Such was my dilemma last fall as I began to plant a small border around a new patio. I wanted something easy care, evergreen, low growing, drought tolerant, deer resistant and fragrant. As if they weren’t enough criteria my color palette for that garden is blue, white and silver with pink accents. Quite a tall order!
Usually I am spoilt for choice when plant hunting and quickly come up with the name of several contenders but this one took me a while! Lavender was the obvious choice, especially low growing varieties such as ‘Hidcote’ or ‘Munstead’ – but I already have lavender nearby. I eventually settled on the wonderful old fashioned group of perennials called ‘pinks’, or Dianthus.
This is one of those unfortunate situations where the genus Dianthus consists of over 300 species (including the well-known carnation and biennial ‘Sweet William’), several hundred named cultivars and innumerable hybrids, so perhaps our easiest classification here is to talk about those collectively referred to as the rockery pinks.

'Firewitch' may be an old favorite but it is still deservedly
Photo credit; Missouri Botanical Garden
All of these little treasures, regardless of their botanical lineage fulfill every item on my wish list and are available in shades of pink, white and burgundy as well as several attractive bi-colors. A seemingly impossibly large number of flowers are borne in quick succession giving several months of both color and clove-like scent .

The one I selected for the front of my border is probably my favorite; the bright pink flowering ‘Firewitch’ (Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch) which was awarded perennial of the year in 2006. This species is called ‘cheddar pinks’ after its discovery in the Somerset region of England. The spiky fragrance fills the air in springtime as 1” wide flowers cover the hummocky foliage like colorful pins in a pincushion. The foliage itself is finely textured in an attractive silvery – blue. This beauty not only blooms in summer but also in fall with sporadic flowers even  continuing until snowfall in our garden this year!

'Starlette' is quite distinctive with its tight flower form.
Photo credit; Skagit Gardens

‘Starlette' is one of the ‘star series’ of Dianthus hybrids bred in England. This pretty perennial has a double vibrant magenta flower with a red center. Other hybrids in the star series include 'Fire star' with  fiery red blossoms and magenta eye and the popular 'Neon star' with its almost fluorescent pink flowers over silvery foliage. This series has been bred for better disease resistance and vigor over earlier varieties.

Dianthus Coconut Punch
'Coconut punch'
Photo credit; Great Garden Plants

‘Coconut punch’ is one of five cultivars in the fruit punch series. Boasting hundreds of frilly burgundy and white flowers, each up to 2'' in diameter, it screams for attention! An intense spicy scent only adds to the excitement.'Coconut punch' was selected for its exceptional performance in heat and humidity.

How could anything so dainty exude such a powerful
fragrance? 'Little maiden' looks outstanding when
planted en masse
Photo credit; Jouko Lehmuskallio

For something altogether more delicate try one of the 'sand pinks' (Dianthus arenarius). 'Little maiden' (D. arenarius f. nanus) resembles clusters of tiny pure white feathers, so finely dissected are the petals. These typically bloom July-September.

Exposure -   Dianthus do best in full sun although they will also bloom in partial shade.
Soil -  well drained soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH
Water - Although drought tolerant when established they should be watered regularly for the first two years
Division - These pinks spread slowly to become a low growing carpet. If they start to look a bit ragged in parts the plants can easily be pulled or cut into sections, discarding the bare sections and replanting the remainder in clumps 4” in diameter or larger.
Hardiness - Zones 4-9
Problems – and how to avoid them!
Overwatering and heavy clay soils are the kiss of death, quickly killing the plants from stem rot. The foliage will take on a sickly yellow shade and you may notice black mushy growth at the base. They definitely do NOT like soggy bottoms! Keep mulch away from the plants and situate so that they are in well-drained soil, however, and they will reward you.
Planting ideas
All these pinks look at home at the front of the border or tucked amongst boulders in a rock garden. They also make an attractive addition to container gardens.

I love this perennial combination of Dianthus  with the
spires of veronica (Veronica spicata)and the spherical 
Photo credit
 Try a romantic color scheme of silver, white and pink, pairing ‘Firewitch’ with white pansies and the soft felted foliage of ‘silver dust’ (Cineraria syn. Senecio) for a container which will look delightful from September through May. Underplanting the pansies with white or pink hyacinths will add additional fragrance and a new look in early spring. Combining these in an elegant white or silver container would be the prefect finishing touch.

At the front of a border the bold foliage of Heuchera ‘Berry smoothie’ would add great depth and contrast to any white flowering rockery pinks. With its raspberry toned leaves looking delicious in either full sun or partial shade, this Heuchera is a versatile companion.
Or for a different look a low growing sedum such as ‘Dragon’s blood’ could weave its fleshy rosettes of burgundy foliage around ‘Coconut punch’, echoing the burgundy tones while the white splashes of the Dianthus would brighten the otherwise monochromatic pairing. Since  both are sun loving and drought tolerant they would be perfect partners.


  1. If you have a deer problem, the dianthus deltoides are the best. I found "bright lights" dianthus, lithodora, and cerastium tomentosum are lovely together, (keep the cerastium trimmed!) And seeds from these little blood red dianthus are easy to propagate as well.
    I hope more people try dianthus in their yards.
    Thanks for reminding me about these standbys like firewitch... It'll likely bloom later than aubretia, but I wonder if it would combine with dark phlox subulata...?

    1. The Cerastium might get a little over zealous in my garden but thanks for the reminder about Lithodora and I especialy love your idea of combining Dianthus with the darker Phlox subulata. I feel a Shopportunity coming on...

  2. I have clumps of dianthus scattered throughout the garden...some of my favorite spring blooms. I like the 'Little Maiden' you feature delicate. I will be looking out for that variety.

  3. I love the photos and your suggestions for combinations. "Baths Pink' has done well in my garden. I love the fragrance! I haven't thought of combining dianthus in a pot with other flowers. Thanks for the suggestions!

  4. Art In The Garden sounds wonderful, I would love to go!


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