For several years, I presented my wife with nothing but exotic and costly bouquets which, curiously enough, never seemed to please her. After 15 years of marriage, she finally confessed that all she ever wanted – or would want – were carnations. “They’re pretty, they smell nice, they last a long time, and they don’t cost a lot,” she counseled me. It is true that you can get a bunch of six carnations at almost any supermarket or drugstore for around $3. And they always stay fresh in a vase for at least one week – and sometimes two. Besides, when you consider carnations’ modest price, you could put several bunches of them together, present your beloved with an enormous bouquet and still have enough left in your pocket to bring home dinner.
The original symbol of Mother’s Day was the carnation. The first organized Mother’s Day celebration was held on Sunday, May 10, 1908, in West Virginia. On that day, Anna Jarvis sent 500 white carnations to a church in a small West Virginia town in memory of her mother, along with a telegram that read: “Each one present will be given a white carnation; mothers will be given two, in memory of the day. The white carnation is preferred because it may be thought to typify some of the virtues of motherhood; whiteness stands for purity; its (the carnation’s) lasting qualities, faithfulness; its fragrance, love; its wide field of growth, charity; its form, beauty.” As the years passed, people whose mothers were living would wear red carnations and people whose mothers were deceased would wear white carnations on Mother’s Day.
Jarvis’ use of flowers as a way of expressing deeply felt emotions had a long tradition behind it. In Constantinople in the 1600s, a culture developed around flower-giving as a form of communicating every conceivable sentiment. Lists of hundreds of flowers – and their meanings – were drawn up. For instance, rosemary expressed affectionate memories, daisy represented innocence, and oleander was meant as a warning. Carnations, depending on their color and type, might stand for fascination, disdain or being heartbroken.
Lady Montagu, who spent many years in Constantinople, brought this culture back to England, from where it was taken closest to the heart by the French, who printed a volume on the subject – “Le Language de Fleurs” – that was soon being read throughout the world.
A bittersweet French connection with the carnation is made in the film “Jean de Florette.” It is the story of a frustrated bureaucrat who turns his back on Parisian life in order to become a farmer. Eventually, he decides to grow carnations, only to have his plans thwarted by greedy neighbors who stop up his well. The film is horticulturally accurate, since the Mediterranean is indeed the habitat of the carnation.
Carnation, like the word carnal, has a meaty etymology; in Elizabethan England, the carnation’s colors were thought to resemble those of raw flesh. Carnations are also sometimes called pinks, since their serrated petals appear to have been cut by pinking shears, which are used to cut saw-toothed edges. Dianthus, the scientific name for carnations, means flower (anthos) of God (Di).
The carnation of the floral trade is Dianthus Caryophyllus. It may be grown as a ground cover in our climate but is sensitive to intense summer heat. Dianthus barbatus, known as sweet William, has single flowers – as opposed to the doubles of the florist’s carnation – and blooms profusely this time of year in sun or light shade; it is available in solid colors of white, pink, red and violet. Sweet William may bloom continuously for up to two or three years if consistently dead-headed and fertilized. Dianthus chinensis has flowers that may have white edges or other unusual markings.
Tip of the week: Dwarf carnations, not exceeding 6 to 8 inches in height, are available for those who have a passion for miniatures. Plant them with multiflora petunias, French marigolds and dwarf zinnias for a flower garden under 1 foot tall.