Though it’s difficult to select a subject in July (too much choice!), I decided to write about pinks – as opposed to carnations, sweet Williams, or any others of the Dianthus tribe – but the most superficial investigation shows that this isn’t easy, simply because there are no strictly maintained borders between the various groups, certainly not in common parlance. So for the avoidance of doubt (as we lawyers like to say), what I mean is the old-fashioned, low-growing, scented plants with the grey-green leaves and relatively simple flowers, rather than the tall Dianthus caryophyllus, which used to adorn wedding buttonholes, or the hairy Dianthus barbartus (or Stinking Billy, if your political inclinations go that way).
The name ‘dianthus’, meaning ‘flower of the gods’, was applied to the plant by Theophrastus, the pupil of Aristotle who was the founding father in the West of systematic botany. The wild antecedents of the thousands of hybrid varieties grow, according to John Fraser, editor of The Gardening World and author of Carnations, Picotees and Pinks (1907), in ‘North and West Normandy .. and South and East Punjaub in India. Other really wild European habitats are North Italy and parts of Austria bordering on the Mediterranean. [Alas for the old world order!] It grows on limestone cliffs and banks, as well as old castle ruins in Normandy such as Château-Gaillard on the Seine, and Falaise … In England, it has long been naturalised on Rochester Castle, … being recorded at least as early as 1788, with pale and deep red, single flowers’.
The common pink (Dianthus plumarius), according to the same source, ‘is a native of Europe and Asia, extending from Russia in the north to Croatia in the south, and from Austria to the river Ischin in Siberia. According to early botanical works, it was introduced to this country in 1629’, but as Fraser immediately points out, it was clearly naturalised here much earlier than that, as the number of its vernacular names attests. ‘Sops in wine’ is now applied to a particular hybrid, but in the sixteenth century was used for pinks which we would now call ‘picotee’ – white flowers with a dark red tinge round the edge, like a piece of white bread which has been dipped into a glass of red wine.
(The flesh of the apple of the same name is similarly stained pink: Robert Hogg the pomologist remarked that it was ‘perhaps more singular than useful’, though it has a place in blends for cider.)
The English common name, ‘gillyflower’, and its variants – gilliflower, gilliver, gillover, July-flower – are thought to derive from the French ‘girofle’, < Late Latin ‘gariophylum’ (cf. It. ‘garofano’) < Lat. ‘caryophyllum’ < Gk καρυόφυλλον (see above), which means ‘clove’ – either because the scent of the flower resembles that of the spice, or because the flower bud resembles the dried flower bud of the clove. ‘Carnation’, by the way, has two possible etymologies: ‘flora coronaria’ because the flowers were used for garlands, or from the Latin for ‘flesh’, ‘caro, carnis’, hence ‘incarnation’, ‘carnation’. (The French for ‘carnation’ is one of those consonant-free words, ‘oeillet’ (little-eye, cf. eyelet for a lacehole in a shoe). It possibly comes from the extremely implausible folk etymology whereby the goddess Diana approached a gorgeous mortal youth who rebuffed her: she plucked out his eyes and dropped them to the ground, where they turned into flowers. But it more likely refers to the little ‘eye’ of a different colour at the centre of some single carnations and pinks.)
The popularity of the pink as a garden flower may have been one of the reasons which led Thomas Fairchild, nurseryman of Hoxton, to use it as a trial plant when he experimented with hybridisation: it has been suggested that he was trying to create novelties among his stock-in-trade without having to wait on the vagaries of sailors, merchants and others to bring him exotica from abroad. He was also aware that pinks and sweet Williams (the other ‘parent’ plant in his experiment) were closely related. It is interesting to note, though, that the two pressed specimens of his ‘mules’ now in the Natural History Museum and the Oxford University Herbaria are morphologically different, indicating that he must have experimented on more than one Dianthus variety.
Another source of information about early cultivated pinks comes from images, occasionally in textiles, sometimes in paintings, but very frequently in manuscripts. Armenian bole was used to provide the red colour for pinks on Iznik pottery.
In Carpaccio’s sequence of paintings on the life of the Virgin once held in the Scuola degli Albanesi in Venice (an unremarkable building in a narrow passage, until you look up),
the flower in the vase in the Virgin’s room is a pink, while the Archangel Gabriel arrives bearing the more traditional lily.
Pinks figure occasionally in Dutch and Flemish flower paintings:
There is one in a spandrel in this so-called ‘Sheldon’ tapestry (for cogent arguments as to why this attribution is false/meaningless, see here).
But the appearances and realistic rendering in northern European illuminated manuscripts are manifold. (N.B. Don’t on any account miss the ‘Colour’ exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but prepare to have your socks blown off.) Here are just a few examples.
Meanwhile, on the horticultural front, ‘old-fashioned pinks’ has become a term of art, as this article suggests. The scentless Dianthus deltoides, also known as the ‘maiden pink’ or ‘lady’s cushion’, grows wild over almost all of Britain and has given rise to many cultivars, including this one, of which I am fond, but of which I have lost the label.
The spectacular Dianthus carthusianorum (‘German pink’) has many narrow-petalled flowers on a single stem, and looks from a distance not unlike Verbena bonariensis.
It may have been brought to Britain by the monks of the Charterhouse, whose arrival stemmed from the penitential foundation after 1173 by Henry II of nine Carthusian houses, of which the first was Witham in Somerset (its most famous prior was St Hugh of Lincoln). The monks (each of whom had an individual garden outside his cell) used the plant medicinally for muscle pain and rheumatism.
Of the old varieties, ‘Mrs Sinkins’ is probably the most familiar, with its strong scent and pure white doubled (if not tripled) petals. The original Mrs Sinkins was apparently Catherine, the wife of J.T. Sinkins, the Master of the Eton Union Workhouse in Slough, who bred the plant and named it after her.
‘Musgrave’s Pink’ which has several synonyms including ‘Charles Musgrave’, has been known since 1730, though I can’t find a Mr Musgrave to go with it. (Did Jane Austen know it, and change a vowel when naming characters in Persuasion?)
But hybridisation continues apace, with new varieties every year (and, I gather, an attempt to really fly in the face of nature by creating a blue – just say no!).
A finalist in the ‘Plant of the Year’ competition at Chelsea in 2015 was ‘Tequila Sunrise’, one of a sequence of ‘cocktail’ pinks bred by Whetman’s.
Single, pretty colour, glorious scent: just what you’d expect from a gillyflower.