Pinks, Gilliflowers, & Carnations -- The Exalted Flowers

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Pinks are among the oldest of garden flowers and their history is rich and complex. According to Stuart and Sutherland in Plants from the Past, "Almost all . . . have been in gardens for so long, and are so diverse, that several have lost contact with any known wild species." Theophrastus first named these southern European natives Dianthus by combining the Greek words dios ("divine") and anthos ("flower"), an allusion to their heavenly fragrance and color. Although Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) and carnations (D. caryophyllus) are also important members of this genus, the principal ancestor of our evergreen, mat-forming pink is D. plumarius -- the grass pink.

The evolution of the word "pink" is interesting in its own right. Plants of Colonial Days (1959) states that pinks derived their name from pinksten or pfingsten, the German name for flowers that bloomed at Pentecost, or Whitsuntide. Other sources say that the word pink comes from the "pinked" or jagged edge of the petals, as though cut by pinking shears. In either case, it appears the idea of "pink" as a color did not occur until much later, for the color was named for the flowers rather than the other way around. In the eighteenth century, flowers were described as blush, pale red, rose, light red, flesh-colored, or carnation -- never pink.

Pinks enjoyed their greatest development and history in Britain; and single and double forms were commonly available at least by the sixteenth century. Several years ago the vigorous single-flowered 'Purple' and 'White Jagged Pinks' of Gerard's seventeenth-century Herbal were rediscovered by Dr. Art Tucker in a Sussex County, Delaware cemetery. Double forms in white and several shades of rose, including 'Old Fringed White' and 'Old Fringed Pink', also make excellent garden plants. When Jefferson mentions a pink blooming at Shadwell in 1767, or the planting of "pinks. in locks of fence N. & W." at Poplar Forest in 1811, he was likely referring to one of these types.

The Herbals of Parkinson and Gerard both describe many sorts of pinks, all of which are listed as Caryophyllus or "Gillofloures." Gilliflower was a general term used for dianthus, a name perhaps derived from "July-flower" or jolie-fleur, although Alice Coats disputes this. In Flowers and their Histories she maintains the name came from the Arabic, Greek, and Latin words for clove through the Italian (garofolo) and the French (giroflée). Clove gilliflower, however, often referred specifically to carnations, which the Spaniards used as a spicy flavoring in summer drinks. This culinary use, which persisted from the time of Pliny down through the centuries, led the English to call carnations "Sops-in-Wine"during the time of Chaucer. Because grass pinks and carnations are known to hybridize naturally, the lines of distinction in the early texts are often not clear.

Mention of gilliflowers and clove gilliflowers occurs in America as early as 1676 in Thomas Glover's Account of Virginia, where he notes "clove-gilliflowers" in planters' gardens. On a list of plants sent to Francis Eppes around 1786, Jefferson also includes "Giroffle royal. Gilly flowers, royal. to be sown in March. very fine & very rare."

By the eighteenth century in America, pinks were not available to the degree or diversity as they were in England. In 1795 John Lithen, nursery and seedsman from Philadelphia, carried a simple offering of "Carnation, Pheasant ey'd pink, and Sweet William." A typical early nineteenth-century catalogue listing resembled that from "John Bartram's Botanical Garden" of 1807:

Dianthus barbatus. Sweet William
carthusanorum [Cluster-head Pink]
chinensis. China Pink
caryophyllus Carnation [also Clove Pink]
plumarius Feathered Carnation.

The often listed China Pink (D. chinensis), also called "Indian" and "Imperial Pink," could be propagated easily from seed, unlike the hybrid forms of Grass Pinks. Thus, they were likely more accessible to remote gardeners such as southern Virginian Jean Lady Skipwith, who recorded "Pinks of Various kinds, very fine Chinese Pink, Double and Single" in her late eighteenth-century garden at Prestwould. Earlier in the century, Williamsburg's John Custis grew "Indian pinks" as well, probably from seed sent by John Bartram who, according to Peter Collinson, had "gott from France the Double Flowering China or India pink." Likewise at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson sowed China pinks, which he got from Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon in 1807.

The pheasant's eye pinks were another class often found in early nineteenth-century American seed catalogues. This name was used for a vast group of pinks that evolved in Britain by the late seventeenth century and were characterized by flowers marked with a dark central blotch and a soft irregular band of color along the jagged margin of each petal. They were usually single, but if double the flowers had a ragged cluster of small petals near the center. Interestingly, this type of pink was considered passé in Britain by the late eighteenth century, at a time when they were among the few forms available in America. Obviously, when it came to pinks, American gardeners were decidedly behind the times.

"Laced" pinks began to appear in England in the 1780s. These were fully double flowers, and each petal had a continuous, well-defined band of color along the margin and an equally hard-edged blotch at the base. English artisan-florists had endless debates about the "correct" form of this flower, but by 1800 they decided that the frilled, or pinked edges had to go. Smooth-edged petals evolved by 1824 and cultivars such as 'Dad's Favourite' resemble pinks of this period. There is little evidence that this "laced" pink mania, which swept England between the 1820s through 1850, ever reached America to the same degree during this time.

While Jefferson may not have known a true "laced" pink, there were certainly dozens of types, including carnation-pink hybrids, that could have been among the pinks and carnations available to him. The single-flowered painted lady pinks are a group of late sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century hybrids. The true 'Painted Lady' cultivar has petals white on the inner surface and "painted" or splashed delicate pink on the outer. Many "Painted Lady" types, were selected by the late 1600s, including 'Fair Folly' with raspberry pink on white blossoms.

Dazzling double pinks have remained popular through time, including 'Bridal Veil', with deeply fringed white petals and a crimson-eye (seventeenth century). 'Gloriosa', another exceptionally fine carnation-pink hybrid, is pale pink with a faint crimson eye. It was first grown in Scotland during the late1700s and rediscovered in a Seattle, Washington, garden by plantswoman Léone Bell around 1980. According to her long-time friend and fellow rosarian Doug Seidel, Mrs. Bell first introduced it as "Seattle Shaggy," which was the colloquial name for this very hardy and vigorous pink. Tracing the connection to early Scottish immigrants in the Pacific Northwest region, Mrs. Bell finally concluded it was the true 'Gloriosa'. Roy Genders, a British garden writer and collector of cottage garden plants, describes it as "an old Scottish pink the flowers are of a beautiful shape and fully double, being pale pink in coloring with a crimson eye and having outstanding fragrance."

Today the collection of pinks at Monticello and Tufton Farm is quite extensive and includes found varieties from old gardens and cemeteries. Interest in old garden pinks continues to grow in America and preservation of these valuable plants seems almost certain. Many have discovered also the true ornamental qualities of these tidy, evergreen perennials. Their attractive, blue-gray foliage offers year-round appeal for their use as an edging or groundcover plant. But the true appeal of pinks comes at the time of their blossoming, when their delicate and sweet flowers come forth bearing a fragrance of heaven.

Peggy Cornett, Director
Thomas Jefferson Center
for Historic Plants
January 1998

Interest in old cottage garden plants is thriving today in both Britain and the States. For information about the American Dianthus Society contact: Rand Lee, P. O. Box 22232, Santa Fe, NM 87502. (505) 438-7038. Their journal, The Gilliflower Times, is published quarterly.

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