In the Pinks

A few humble species known as "pinks" capture hearts.

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Bold solid color with picotee edges and improved heat resistance make Firewitch great in the South. (SHNS photo by Peter A. Hogg)

"Given the choices — real estate, gambling, aerobics or television — dianthus addiction seems a delightfully fresh direction for 20th-century compulsives."

I know Katherine Whitesides was right about dianthus, which long ago captured the hearts of English gardeners and enslaved them with beauty and fragrance.

Dianthus is a genus of 300 species that includes two famous plants, sweet William and carnations. But it is a few humble species collectively known as "pinks" that capture hearts. There is evidence that the name "pink" as a color was coined after the hued blossoms of these plants. Pinks followed the colonists to New England. Thomas Jefferson wrote of them blooming at Shadwell in 1767. Despite this early start they never reached the height of popularity here as in old England.

Plants in this group bloom in white, pink, many shades of red and lavender. What makes them really exciting to breeders is the unique serrated edges of their petals known as picotee. Perhaps this was the inspiration for pinking shears, scissors that cut with a distinctive zigzag pattern. Breeders have combined picotee with all sorts of exotic color markings over the years to make the flowers positively irresistible.

Dianthus "Mountain Mist" features both deep picotee and double flowers. (SHNS photo by Peter A. Hogg)
Dianthus "Mountain Mist" produces tidy rounded plants you can shear with scissors after bloom. (SHNS photo by Peter A. Hogg)
Many varieties of pinks produce exquisite patterns on the petals like Dianthus "Spotty." (SHNS photo by Peter A. Hogg)
Highly graphic spot patterns like Dianthus "Spotty" have endeared them to English gardeners for centuries. (SHNS photo by Peter A. Hogg)

The cottage pink, Dianthus plumarius, is native to Europe. These plants thrive in the chalky soils of the Cotswalds and the west country, where PH is neutral to slightly alkaline. This species is the parent of some of the showiest contemporary varieties that are sure to capture even the hardest heart.

Cottage pinks often cross-pollinated in gardens with maiden pink, a native English species, Dianthus deltoides. Also in the picture is D. gratianopolitanus, known as Cheddar pinks. Recent efforts to breed new pinks focused on this last species, which contributes improved adaptability to warmer climates.

Also in the breeder's aim is enhancing foliage color so they are more attractive when out of bloom. Renowned for their cold-hardiness, often as low as Zone 3, pinks are mainstays of Northern gardens, but can be surprisingly short-lived in the humid South and very hot, dry West.

Three recent introductions are hybrids of Dianthus gratianopolitanus. They exhibit the coveted color, spotting and picotee edges with new tolerance of hot, humid climates of the Carolinas and even Florida.

"Firewitch" features smart blue foliage, a very long flowering season and bright magenta flowers on an outstanding plant.

"Spotty" exhibits the geometric color patterns that made pinks famous, with rich magenta. "Mountain Mist" is the queen of picotee, with fabulous, almost fringed petal edges that give them an almost feminine appearance.

Pinks bloom in June, covering their tidy little mounds with hundreds of sweet-smelling flowers. They are known as "crevice fillers" in England, where they are planted to spring out of gaps between flagstones or around rocky outcroppings. You can shear your pinks with scissors to yield a tidy round plant after they bloom.

Be aware that pinks are not the most long-lived perennials. As seasons pass, they may die out at the center. You can easily start new replacements by cutting chunks from old plants and rooting them for replanting later.

Look for these new hybrids at quality garden centers or log on to www.monrovia.com to see their selections and find a local retailer.

If you're a 21st-century compulsive, beware of impending dianthus addiction.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit: www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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