Fragrant Dianthus

With their spicy scent and bold colors, these centuries-old heirloom flowers can invigorate any garden, bouquet, or meal.

Photo by Getty Images/Illusory reality

Before shops lined their shelves with brightly bottled perfumes; before craft stores sold artificial blooms for décor; before people enjoyed daily (or even weekly) showers and baths, there were flowers. And as humans evolved, so did the ways in which we used them, from covering up body odor to communicating affection. Our modern-day flower market is now filled with highly hybridized varieties, primarily bought for the vase, that lack the scent or appearance of the cultivars from centuries ago. However, as heirlooms continue to capture people’s attention, more of these flowers of old are reclaiming the spotlight.

One of the oldest and perhaps most beloved, Dianthus spp. — the alternately dubbed pink family — is a genus known for its eye-catching colors, delicately frilled petals, and strong, clove-like fragrance. And in a world where tantalizing flower scents are growing thinner, the importance and allure of pinks can’t be overlooked. You can harness Dianthus’ potential by growing cultivars in your garden, using it in your cooking, and accenting your bouquets with the fragrance and beauty of these blooms.

Pinks From Past to Present

According to records, Dianthus’ history spans at least 2,000 years, and possibly more. Because of how long it’s been around, the exact native origin is uncertain, though some sources have traced its roots most likely to Eurasia. Its presence lingers throughout history, from paintings in late medieval and Renaissance art to mentions in written works, such as Shakespeare. Even Thomas Jefferson planted Dianthus. During the Victorian era, they were seen peeking out of nosegays — small bunches of flowers that hung on a person’s body to mask odors — so named for making the person wearing them pleasing to the nose.

The petals of China pink (Dianthus chinensis) are often used in cooking.
Photo by Getty Images/Kwhisky

If you encounter heirloom cultivars of pinks today, the flowers still carry many of the characteristics admired through history, but since they were hybridized centuries ago, they’ve each developed their own unique traits. “Carnation,” “clove pink,” and “sweet William” all fall under the Dianthus umbrella, and though these common names may be used interchangeably to describe pinks, they’re technically different cultivars. Popular pinks include sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), China pink (D. chinensis), carnation or clove pink (D. caryophyllus), and garden pink (D. plumarius).

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