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Gardening 101: Dianthus

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Gardening 101: Dianthus

July 23, 2019

Pinks, Dianthus: “Savior of Sissinghurst”

Consider the “vast tribe of pinks, or Dianthus,” as the legendary English plantswoman Vita Sackville-West did when planting out the next season’s flower beds in her Sissinghurst Castle gardens.

“There are few plants more charming, traditional, or accommodating,” Sackville-West believed. “They make few demands. Sun-lovers, they like a well-drained and rather gritty soil; and if you can plant them with a generous supply of mortar rubble, they will be as happy as the years are long,”

And to think—I recently got rid of all my mortar rubble. From the pinks’ perspective, digging up enough big ugly chunks to fill two Dumpsters was a waste of time. The foxgloves seem happier, though.

But back to Dianthus. Although the horticultural name is synonymous with a certain sort of frilly, candy-colored flower with five petals that we commonly call pinks, it is useful to remember that Dianthus is also a genus of plants. Within this taxonomic category also live many cultivars of carnations (which belong to the species D. caryophyllus) as well as sweet William (a species of biennial pink popular for its ability to withstand colder temperatures).

Most pinks add a frothy layer of pink, white, candy-stripe, or red color at knee level and can be grown either as annuals (in USDA growing zones colder than 5) or as short-lived perennials, which one supposes means they really would prefer to be treated annuals even in warmer climates.

Are pinks a good choice for your garden? Of course they are—if they were good enough for Vita Sackville-West, they’re good enough for us. Read on to learn which species is best for you.

D. plumarius in bloom in France. Photograph by Nicolas Gent via Flickr.
Above: D. plumarius in bloom in France. Photograph by Nicolas Gent via Flickr.

The species Dianthus plumarius is the one you’ll see most often. Nicknamed common pink or garden pink, it is typically a low-growing, front-of-the-border plant that will shower you with flowers. Use it as a ground cover in a sunny, well-drained spot.

D. chinensis. Photograph by Bastus9 via Flickr.
Above: D. chinensis. Photograph by Bastus917 via Flickr.

Native to Asia and parts of Russian, Dianthus chinensis is known as a China pink. With many cultivars, its flowers can be pink (is it redundant to even point that out?), white, or red.

D. alpinus blooming in Sweden. Photograph by Madeleine and Magnus via Flickr.
Above: D. alpinus blooming in Sweden. Photograph by Madeleine and Magnus via Flickr.

On to Alpine pinks. The species Dianthus alpinus is a low-growing herb native to Austria that will form a tight carpet (just a few inches high), which makes it an effective ground cover and a charming addition to a rock garden.

D. barbatus. Photograph by Nicolas Gent via Flickr.
Above: D. barbatus. Photograph by Nicolas Gent via Flickr.

Sweet William grows taller than many other pinks and generally blooms in tight, explosive clusters of flowers. (In the photo above, you can see the tightly packed flower buds.) Flower colors can vary depending on cultivar, from white or pale pink to deep purple with stripes.

Dianthus chinensis. Photograph by Sarah Ivey Rock via Flickr.
Above: Dianthus chinensis. Photograph by Sarah Ivey Rock via Flickr.

Another frilly cultivar of D. chinensis—this one with coloring you can’t ignore.

Dianthus chinensis, Photograph by A. Yee via Flickr.
Above: Dianthus chinensis, Photograph by A. Yee via Flickr.

You can see how the growing habit of D. chinensis is different from sweet William; instead of tight-packed balls of blossoms, the flowers of the pinks in the photo above have a longer stem and are set off individually by cushions of foliage.

Perennials in USDA zones 5 to 9, Dianthus &#8
Above: Perennials in USDA zones 5 to 9, Dianthus ‘Mrs. Sinkins’ grows to a height of about 12 inches. Seeds are available seasonally (a packet is $5); see more information at Select Seeds.

Cheat Sheet

  • For a fragrant flower edging a path, it’s hard to beat the cheerfully white Dianthus ‘Mrs. Sinkins’.
  • Dianthus caesius, known colloquially as cheddar pink, “is almost as heavily scented as Mrs. Sinkins herself, and as easy to grow,” writes Sackville-West.
  • Encourage repeat blooms by deadheading pinks after they finish flowering.

Keep It Alive

  • Pinks prefer well-drained, fluffy soil (dig in sand or compost to lighten clay).
  • In growing zones where pinks are perennials, you still should plant to replace them every two to three years (to avoid a straggly, tattered look).
  • Pinks require at least six hours a day of sun and will reward you with more flowers if you give them more light.

For more growing tips, see Dianthus: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guide to Annuals 101. Read more:

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