(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 25, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Carnations have a history covering over 2,000 years. They date back to Greek and Roman times when they were used in art and décor. Carnations in these early times were predominantly found in shades of pale pink and peach, but over the years the palette of available colors has grown to include red, yellow, white, purple, and even green. Dianthus roughly translates to "flower of love" or "flower of the gods", depending on the source.
"Like many other flowers, different messages can also be expressed with the flower's different color varieties. Light red carnations, for example, are often used to convey admiration, whereas the dark red version expresses deeper sentiments of love and affection. White carnations are associated with purity and luck, and pink carnations are often given as a sign of gratitude. In the early part of the 20th century, carnations became the official flower of Mother's Day." The carnation is also the state flower of Ohio, the January birth flower and the 1st wedding anniversary flower. One more fun fact... it is the name of a shade of pink and a crayon color in the larger boxes of Crayola® crayons.
If you want to grow carnations in your own garden, there are many lovely cultivars available, both as plants and as seed. Carnations are easy to grow from seed. They can be sown any time from late winter on. Germination takes from 7 to 14 days. The seedlings should be transplanted into 3" pots when they are large enough to handle. After all risk of frost, harden off seedlings before planting out in the garden. Most are hardy to zone 5 or 6, but you should check on the particular cultivar that interests you. Generally, perennials started from seed will not bloom until their second season. Of course, if you are a gardener who doesn't start plants from seed, or you don't have the patience to wait a year for blooms, there should be a decent selection of carnations at your local garden center or available online. Usually you will have more choices if you start from seed.
If you would like more information on seed starting, there is an excellent series of articles by DG's own Jill Nicolaus (links are available at the end of the article).
The two beautiful picotee photos, taken from PlantFiles, the huge plant database here at Dave's Garden, were both started from seed. At left is 'Picotee' and at right, 'Stripes & Picotees'.
Carnations are available for the garden in both a full-sized plant, 18" to 24" tall, and a dwarf, ranging from 6" to 12" in height. True florist carnations are mainly grown in greenhouses. With a height of up to 4' and larger flowers, these are the ones florists look for to use in arrangements and bouquets. They can be grown outdoors in milder climates. Below are photos of the dwarf 'Adorable' series from California Florida Plant Company. This is an excellent example of the superb range of colors available today. Yes, even green! Although the green here is natural and not a 'dyed for St. Patrick's Day' flower, you may have fun with this project. Take a look at this article by Melody Rose, Dyeing Carnations: A Fun Project With Kids. It will walk you through how to dye a white carnation almost any color the way the florists do.
'Yellow Lacy'Photo credit: ampy Photo credit: PotEmUp Photo credit: jg48650 Photo credit: ampy
For you dyed-in-the-wool carnation fans, I found a carnation festival. It is the Greater Alliance Carnation Festival, held in Alliance, Ohio, also known as Carnation City. It will be held August 7-17, 2008. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the red or scarlet carnation is the Ohio state flower. It was adopted in 1904 in memory of President William McKinley who always wore one in his lapel. He started wearing carnations that were presented to him by a friend, Dr. Levi Lamborn who was also his opponent for a congressional seat. Lamborn always gave him one before a debate. McKinley won the Congressional election and associated the carnation with his success. President McKinley was assassinated minutes after giving the lucky scarlet carnation from his lapel to a young girl who wanted a souvenir.
Carnations have long been a favorite of mine. They have a strong, spicy, clove-like fragrance. As a cut flower, they just can't be beat... very long-lasting and they complement almost any other flower. They also have a long blooming season in the garden. I am drawn toward the pink shades. And do you remember making those pretty tissue paper carnations when you were a kid? What's not to like?
Additional photo credits with huge thanks to all of the talented photographers who contribute their time and talent to expanding PlantFiles:
PotEmUp, 'Cinnamon Red Hots'(opening thumbnail); KimGaither, 'Picotee'; cjolene, 'Stripes & Picotees'
Articles by Jill Nicolaus ~ Seed Starting 101:
Setting up Light Shelves for Starting Plants from Seed Indoors, Without a Greenhouse
Seedling Heat Mats and Inexpensive Alternatives
The Dreaded Damping Off (and How to Prevent It)
Sowing Seeds and Clump Transplanting for Sturdy Seedlings
Hardening off Seedlings Before Planting Out in Your Garden
 Florapedia, Inside Info on Flowers Plants & Gifts, Carnations; information on history and meaning of carnations
 Various sources