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

Pink and white carnation/Photo credit: shutterstock_292954028

Every Chinese New Year brings a brand new set of lucky animals, colors, numbers and flowers. Steeped in meaning, they can bring prosperity and abundance to the home. For some, though, 2015’s lucky flower, the carnation, may pose some challenges. The plant certainly has its fair share of detractors. But 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. It also  boasts a history going back more than 2,000 years. The Greeks and Romans used carnations in ceremonial crowns and garlands, leading 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, the old-fashioned carnation known as pinks 

Many of us who shun carnations in favor of more showy blooms are actually planting them in our gardens. Are you a fan of Dianthus, otherwise known as Pinks? Dianthus is the Scientific name for carnations.

Early garden writers certainly believed in the flower’s charms. 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


In addition to its long history, the carnation has yet another plus. All its many colors are steeped in meaning. In fact, each color represents an emotion or wish, some of which include: 

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

Still, of all the colors, the most symbolic is pink. Centuries ago many believed pink carnations embodied the tears of the Virgin Mary. Nowadays, they represent a mother’s love for her child.

Pink represents a mother’s love for her child

There are also darker meanings associated with carnations’ colors. For instance, some believe striped varieties symbolize regret and refusal, while yellow ones signify disappointment. All the more reason to know the color associations before sending the flowers as gifts!


Since 1954, carnations have been grown commercially as a flower crop 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 back quickly under harsh winter conditions. For this reason, they are often referred to as annuals, since many gardeners choose to replant them every year.

carnations growing in a greenhouse

Carnations growing in a greenhouse

In addition to the annuals, there are two other common types. These are perennial (border) carnations and perpetual-flowering (florists’) carnations.


Perennial (border) carnations, also known as Pinks, are among the oldest garden flowers. Bushier than florists’ carnations and more compact, they range in height from 12 to 14 inches. Flowers are produced singly or in clusters of five on grayish leaves.



Typical dianthus flower cluster

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. This is because the flowers are commercially grown indoors all year round in greenhouses. Primarily used for cut flowers, they 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.

florist's carnations

Florist’s carnations

In the early 1900’s, flower sellers grouped florists’ carnations in classes that included such 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, they grade them more by stem length. New and beautiful varieties are constantly being developed.


Among these new colors and shapes, two hybrids, Green Ball and Broccoli, are attracting lots of attention. In fact, the unusual colors have fueled a renaissance for the flower among higher-end florists.

Did you know? 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.