University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
Carnations are one of the most popular and classic cut flowers and, in fact, the most popular one world-wide after roses.  What makes them popular is that they’re inexpensive, long lasting compared to many cut flowers, fragrant, and come in most any color.  They are no longer just limited to prom boutonnieres and funeral bouquets as in the past. You can find them from grocery stores to florist shops year round and, depending on time of year, in many other outlets.
The carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) is native to Eurasia and means "flower of the gods."  This “divine flower” grew wild on hillsides in Greece, and was first named by the Greek botanist Theophastus for the Greek words referring to the god Zeus (dios) and flower (anthos). Its first known historical reference is its use in garlands by Greeks and Romans. The common name may come from the words coronation or corone (flower garlands) from this first use of them.
The first carnations were imported to this country in 1852-- a shipment of French carnations to a Long Island grower. These came originally from a strain first registered in France in 1842. Within 20 years, there were 54 varieties of carnations listed by this American grower.
In the United States, the production of carnations was centered in the Northeast until the middle of the 20th century. One of the most popular series of all time, the Sim series, was developed by Saugus, Massachusetts breeder William Sim, a Scottish immigrant who first bred these in his Sim’s Carnation greenhouses in 1938.
Production then moved west to Colorado and southern California, which have the high light and cool night temperatures that carnations need to grow best. Today, most of the world production is in Columbia, with some production still in those two western states. During the peak cut-flower season, there are 30 to 35 flights daily from Columbia (mainly into Miami) of carnations (over $156 million worth), and other cut flowers. Additionally, major carnation producers are in Israel, Kenya, and Spain. So the carnations you buy locally really are international travelers.
Carnations are attractive both as a single bloom in a bud vase, as a mass of blooms in a larger vase, or mixed in with other flowers in arrangements and bouquets.     Miniature or spray carnations have sprays (botanically called “cymes”) of five to six flowers per stem, with smaller blooms. You can mix and match colors, or stick to carnations of the same color, arranging with similar or contrasting colors of other flowers.  (Don’t forget some fern or other foliage leaves if making your own arrangement.)
On the botany and anatomy of carnations, leaves are quite narrow, sparse up the stems, with a waxy surface and generally bluish- green to grayish-green.  Their blooms are bisexual—having both male and female parts. They’re about two to three inches across, smaller for the mini types, and highly ruffled.   Like many flowers, carnations don’t come in blue, lacking the pigment “delphinidin.”  So in the mid 1990’s, the first blue-violet and purple types were produced genetically by inserting genes into the carnation from petunias and snapdragons.
The strongly and pleasantly fragrant flowers are available in many colors. The most popular “natural” colors are red, white, and pink. You also can find bicolors with different colored petal edges. In addition, white flowers are often dyed to create solids like green, blue, purple, or even black.     I’ve seen gorgeous arrangements all with variations of red, pink and white; or another combination with all tints and shades of purple, lavender, and white.
In the Language of Flowers, popular first during Victorian times, special meanings have been attributed to different colors.  For instance, pink means mothers’ love or gratitude, light red means admiration, dark red means deep love, white symbolized pure love or remembrance, striped denotes regret or refusal, purple capriciousness, and yellow both cheerful as well as rejection.  You might check these meanings before giving them as a gift. Carnations, too, are the birth month flower for January. 
One Christian legend behind the pink meaning was that this flower first appeared on Earth as Jesus carried his cross.  Carnations sprung up from where the tears shed by the Virgin Mary fell. Hence, pink became a symbol of a mother’s love, and is often worn on Mother’s Day.
Being a common global flower, the carnation has various other meanings depending on the country.  In the Netherlands, the white carnation is worn in remembrance of veterans, and the resistance in World War II.  In Portugal, bright red carnations represent the 1974 military and civil coup, which is often referred to as the Carnation Revolution since so many were worn or put into muzzles at the end.  Red carnations, similarly, symbolize socialism and the labor movement, and have been worn on International Workers’ Day (May Day).
You can create magic at home (a great project for children), changing white flowers to other colors with the use of food coloring. Just add a few drops to a glass of water, add the bloom stem (recut first before adding to the water), and let it absorb the new color.
For a unique display, hang orbs or balls of carnations from the ceiling. You will need a large ball of florists' foam (available from florists and craft stores, these “bricks” hold lots of water and the stems).  Tie several blocks together, then shape them with a knife into the shape you desire.  Use ribbon or florists’ wire (a thin green wire) to hang the ball. Soak the foam so it's nice and wet. Then cut the flower stems to about one and one-half inches, and simply push the stems into the foam until the ball is completely covered.
Carnations can last up to three weeks with the proper care.  Keep them out of direct sunlight, and away from cold drafts or heat sources such as fireplaces, woodstoves, or forced-air heat vents.  As with many cut flowers, cool room temperatures (55 to 65 degrees) are ideal for longest life. 
Use clean containers.  You can disinfect vases with about one-quarter teaspoon of bleach in a quart of water. Then rinse well. If you don’t like working with bleach, a household disinfectant such as Lysol works well too (equal parts with water).
If you have hard or soft water, buy some distilled water for your cut carnations for longest life.  Replace this water about every three days, recutting a half-inch or so of stem off each time.  Cut stems under running water to keep air from getting into the stem openings and clogging the water vessels.  As with other cut flowers, make sure leaves are removed that would be underwater. This keeps bacteria from breeding.
To further increase the carnation vase-life, you can add a floral preservative.  These may come in small packets with flower bouquets, or you can buy this from florists.  An alternative is to add one part lemon-lime soda (the kind with sugar) to three parts water, plus a few drops of bleach.  This provides food for the flowers, and the bleach helps keep bacteria from growing.
Whether it's yellow you want for a mid-winter boost, red for your valentine, green for St. Patrick's Day, or even a combination like purple, green and yellow for Mardi Gras, there are carnations for you.

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