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Dianthus caryophylus , aka Gillyflower (Europe)
Carnations are popular cutting flowers. The best ones are the Chabaud’s. They’re taller than others and come in a nice array of colors. And they tend to grow with just one flower per stem.
Florist carnations are grown commercially in greenhouses where they reach up to 4 ft. tall! The side buds on each stem are removed to allow the plant to send more of its energy to the terminal flower—to make them large. They are propagated by cuttings or by layering.
But in home gardens you can grow nice carnations very easily by seed. They’re tough plants and you’ll enjoy them for their colors, spicy fragrance, and long-lasting cut flowers in the vase.
The flowers are edible! Garnish salads, desserts, cakes and cold drinks, soups with the petals…remove the petals from the flower base, the base is too bitter.
Carnations come from the Mediterranean where they’ve been cultivated for over 2,000 years. For more history read the Special Info section below.
What Carnation Flowers are Like
Carnations have a clove-like fragrance, flowers are often fully double with petals slightly fringed at the ends. Some have stripes, some are picotee—which means the edges of the petals are lined with a darker color, making them really stand out as flowers in a bouquet. Some may have speckles.
They come in all hues of pink, magenta, peach, pale yellow, white, and of course, red. Blooms are 1½ – 2 in across. Flower stems can be from 1 -2 ft. tall.
Chabaud’s is the best variety to grow in the garden. They tend to have one flower per stem, making them easy to harvest and mix in bouquets.
They bloom in late spring to early summer. With deadheading you’ll get a few more again in the late summer.
They will last 7-10 days or longer in the vase.
What the Plants are Like
Perennial, in the right zones. Plants have blue-green succulent, lance-shaped leaves, and thick, rounded joints at the nodes.
Plants grow to 1½ – 2½ ft tall and wide.
These are fairly tough plants, tolerating heat and dry conditions.
Carnations are deer resistant. I’ve watched browsing deer sniff and walk away from my carnations. But, during high-pressure deer years I wouldn’t risk it. If you have plenty of carnation plants you have the chance to try them in your landscape plantings. But for cutting I always keep it on the safe side and grow carnations in fenced areas.
How to Grow Carnations
Zones 6-9, full sun. If you’re in a cooler zone, they can be grown in a container and brought into a sheltered spot over the winter. Or grow as an annual if you live in a colder zone, see below. Average to good garden soil that drains well, slightly alkaline, pH 6.7-6.9. Space plants at 6 – 12 in. in the garden. Regular water, let dry between waterings.
Start by seed
Select from the wide variety of Chabaud’s seed mixes.
Seeds offer the best selection of colors and mixes to choose from. You may want to start more than you need and see which colors and picotees you have when they bloom. That way you can choose what to keep and what to give away. (Unless you have a local grower that has a nice assortment.)
You can also grow carnations in containers—one gallon size is a good size.
If you start the seeds early enough you may get a late summer flower out of them. Otherwise you’ll need to wait till the following late spring-summer for blooms.
If you are in a colder zone you can grow Chabaud’s as an annual. In this case you must start them 6-8 weeks before the last frost date because it takes up to 4 months to bloom when started from seed.
How to Harvest Carnation Flowers
Harvest a bit after flowers start to open. Cut at the bottom of the stem and condition in the usual way. Deadhead any you don’t use for bouquets. That way the plant can put more energy into producing a second round of flowers.
My Favorite Varieties
Chabaud’s is the best for cutting flowers. It’s the one I’ve always grown. Many seed packs will be a mix. One of my favorites has been stripes and picotees. I like them because of how their flashy details stand out on a smallish flower in a bouquet.
Sources for Carnation Seeds
Johnny’s Seeds has an excellent selection of Chabaud’s carnation seeds. They are separated into colors, color blends, and plenty of picotees and stripes. At their page don’t be confused by the inclusion of Sweet William, which are also nice cutting flowers. But not the same as cutting carnations.
Most nurseries will carry Chabaud’s carnation seeds.
In 1851 Joseph Breck, founder of Breck’s bulb company, wrote “There is no flower more desirable in the flower-garden than the Carnation. A well-grown, superior variety, cannot be surpassed, in elegance, beauty, or odor by any other flower…”
Breck went on to give evidence that Carnations were, generally, not very stable when grown from seed and described in detail the much preferred method for producing new plants, known as layering, saying, “The propagation of the Carnation by layers is a very simple operation”…and he goes on to describe the “simple propagation process by layering. This excerpt is from Carnation – A little History and Some Growing Instructions.
The article says that the Chabaud variety of carnations were introduced by a French firm in 1870 and it’s still considered one of the best carnations yet. And it is started by seed.
It is perennial in Zones 6-9, and grown as an annual in colder zones.
Flowers to Go With Carnations
Here are some flowers that will go well with and bloom around the same time as carnations:
Perennial Statice: Nice airy, sprays go well with the classic carnations
Annual Statice: Long-lasting and classic fronds of color pair well with carnations
Feverfew: Tiny white daisies will bloom around the same time as carnations and make a good filler
Bee Balm: The strong colors of bee balm will be a nice foil for soft-hued carnations
Alstroemerias: These and carnations are classic florist choices