How to Grow to Love this Year’s ‘Lucky’ Flower: the Carnation

Pink and white carnation/Photo credit: shutterstock_292954028

Each Chinese New Year brings with it a new set of lucky animals, colors, numbers and flowers. Steeped in traditional meaning, certain plants and blooms can bring prosperity and abundance to the home. For some, though, one of this year’s (2015) lucky flowers, the carnation, may present some challenges. Often maligned, the plant has its fair share of detractors who would never include it in a household bouquet. Are they jumping to unlucky conclusions? I decided to take a second look.

Here’s a little history on this misunderstood flower and how you might grow to love it in 2015.

While many consider the carnation to be a common flower, it is actually rich with symbolism and boasts a history going back more than 2,000 years. The Greeks and Romans used carnations in ceremonial crowns and garlands, prompting some historians to speculate that the the flower’s name came from the Greek carnis meaning flesh (referring to its pale color) and incarnacyon (incarnation). Still others say that the name derives from the Roman word ‘corona’ meaning crown.

Dianthus hybrid, "Fancy Knickers"

Dianthus hybrid, “Fancy Knickers”

Many of us who are shunning the carnation in favor of more showy blooms are actually planting it in our gardens under another Greek name, dianthus caryophyllus . The Greek botanist Theophrastus, a successor to Aristotle, coined the name dianthus by combining two Greek words, ‘dios’ meaning divine and ‘anthos’ meaning flower, possibly in reference to the flower’s prized heavenly scent and color. Still others believe dianthus stands for the ‘Flower of Love.’

Early garden writers certainly believed in the charms of the carnation. In the mid 1800’s- to early 20th century, they wrote about it profusely.

 “The Carnation to-day is one of the most popular garden flowers and regard for it has entered so deeply into the hearts of flower lovers that no mere caprice of fashion will ever appreciably effect its standing.” American Gardening, ”Concerning Carnations” Jan. 16, 1897



"Coconut Punch";

“Coconut Punch”;

Aside from its long history, the carnation, by virtue of its many colors, has another plus. It is also steeped in symbolism. Each color has a meaning. Some of the more popular meanings include:

  • Light red: admiration
  • Dark red: deep love and affection
  • Purple: capriciousness
  • White: pure love and good luck

The most symbolic color of all is pink, which some believe represents the color of the Virgin Mary’s tears and in modern times also symbolizes a mother’s love for her child.

There are also darker meanings associated with carnations’ colors. Striped varieties are believed to symbolize regret and refusal, while yellow signifies disappointment and dejection. All the more reason to know the color associations before sending carnations as gifts!



Greenhouse carnations;

Carnations have been grown commercially as a flower crop since 1954 and like it or not, today they are the second most popular flower in the world (second only to the rose.) Although they are considered perennials, they die quickly under harsh winter conditions. For this reason, they are often referred to as annuals, since many gardeners choose to replant them every year.

Aside from the annuals, there are two other common types of carnations. They are perennial (border) carnations and perpetual-flowering (florists’) carnations.

Dianthus "Velvet 'n Lace"

Dianthus “Velvet ‘n Lace”


Perennial (border) carnations, Dianthus caryophyllus (also known as Pinks), are among the oldest garden flowers. They are bushier than florists’ carnations and more compact, ranging from 12 to 14 inches high and wide. Flowers are produced singly or in clusters of five on grayish leaves. Pinks are known for their fragrant clove scent, although other varieties, such as those used in men’s boutonnieres, are without fragrance,

“Who does not recall with pleasant memory the old-time single red Pink so deliciously scented, that our grandmothers cultivated with delight” from “Success With Flowers” Vol. II, August 1892, article by M.D. Wellcome



The florists’ type is referred to as perpetual flowering carnations. These flowers are commercially grown indoors all year round in greenhouses and sometimes outside in areas with mild winters. Primarily used for cut flowers, they can take different shapes including large-flowered, spray or dwarf. Perpetual flowering types often develop multiple flower heads on a single stem, which growers prune in order to produce one single, perfect bloom.

In the early 1900’s, flower sellers grouped florists’ carnations in classes that included such descriptive names as flakes (large, two-colored stripes), bizarrs (striped or variegated with 3-4 colors), piquettes (white background with red or purple spots), Painted Ladies (red or purple on upper side and white underneath) and selfs (all one color.) These days, carnations are graded by stem length. New and beautiful varieties are constantly being developed.

"Green Ball"; hilverdak

“Green Ball”;

The newest colors and shapes include Green Ball and Broccoli, the unusual colors of which have fueled a renaissance for the flower among higher end florists.

In addition to being one of the “lucky” flowers of 2015, the carnation is the national flower of Spain, Monaco and Slovenia and the state flower of Ohio.






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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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