As a child living in Sussex, I remember our garden filled to overflowing with those divine little flowers, pinks (Dianthus – from the Greek dios meaning divine, and anthos, meaning flower).
My Dad had a market garden and plant centre, and I think if he had had the time and inclination, we could have held a National Collection of them! I know now that the key to his success in growing them was the slightly chalky (therefore alkaline), free-draining soil – the one thing above all others that will kill them off is wet feet in the winter. If your soil falls short of providing perfect conditions for them, try growing pinks in containers, where you can tailor-make the optimum mixture, adding some horticultural grit and a little lime if necessary.
They’re well-behaved little plants, keeping to their allotted space, usually at the front of the border, but don’t expect them to last forever. After a while they can become a bit straggly so propagate some new plants during the summer. Gently prise away a non-flowering shoot from the parent plant (they usually come away cleanly) and then carry on as you would if you were taking any sort of cutting. You’ll find they root very easily.
I love all forms of Dianthus, particularly the old-fashioned ones, and most of all D. caryophyllus – the clove pink, used by apothecaries and herbalists. But because I’m a grandma (actually my ‘proper’ grandma name is Nanny Mim), I also have a soft spot for – you’ve guessed it – Dianthus ‘Gran’s Favourite’. I love D. ‘Romance’ too – it’s not your usual pink-coloured pink, it’s more of a salmon-pink. What all my favourites have in common, however, is their fragrance: a small posy of pinks will fill a room with scent - far better than any synthetic reed diffuser or candle.
Also part of the Dianthus family is D. barbatus, or Sweet William. Why it was given this moniker is shrouded in the mists of time: some think it was as a tribute to Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, the 18th Century youngest son of King George II; others say it was to honour Saint William of York, a 12th Century cleric who was twice the Archbishop of York; some people say it was named after William Shakespeare.
I’m disinclined to believe the first suggestion because John Gerard mentions Sweet William in connection with D. barbatus in his Herbal of 1597. I quite like the idea that it has something to do with Shakespeare though – he obviously had a love of flowers; he knew: ‘a bank where the wild thyme blows,/Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,/Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,/With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 2 Scene 1).
Another completely different suggestion has been put forward. Looking at the flower of the Sweet William it could be that William is a corruption of the French Œillet which can mean either carnation (that figures) or eyelet (the centre of the flower does resemble an eyelet, I guess), and it’s Sweet because of the fragrance. Personally, I'm leaning towards this explanation.
Whatever the source of its name, we know that the source of the plant itself is southern Europe. It certainly seems to like the conditions in Britain, however, as long as it has well-drained soil (unlike pinks it can cope with soil that is slightly acid), some sun and a bit of shelter. It will grow up to 50cm, depending on the variety, so it makes an ideal flower for cutting and decoration. Our friend Gerard points been out that it has always been thus: they are: ‘esteemed for their beauty to decke up gardens, [and] garlands and crownes for pleasure.’
Although Sweet William is a short-lived perennial, it’s often grown as a biennial. Sow seeds in late spring, either in a nursery bed (thinning them out and transplanting as necessary) or in modules which can be left outdoors until the seedlings are big enough to be planted in their final position, about 30cm apart, in the garden.
Whether it's Divine Flowers or Sweet Williams, they will certainly grace your garden.