Carnation

Dianthus spp.

Carnations are native to the Mediterranean. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus (371 –287 BCE) called them dianthus from the Greek words dios (‘divine’) and anthos (‘flower’). [1] The common name carnation comes either from the Latin corona meaning a crown, since it was one of the flowers used in Roman chaplets, [2] or fromthe Latin caro meaning ‘flesh’, a reference to the colour of the flower. [3] They are also called ‘pinks’ a name that doesn’t come from the colour, but from the Old English word pynken, meaning notched or cut, referring to the edges of the petals – we still use this word for pinking shears, the serrated scissors used in dressmaking. In the past, they were sometimes called gillyflowers meaning ‘July flowers’, since this is when they usually bloom. Along with the original pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), the name carnation is also applied to the other 300 varieties of Dianthus grown as annuals, biennials or perennials. Growers in the sixteenth century developed the deep red and white varieties that are still extremely popular today.

Pinks were used to impart a slight clove flavour to wine and ale (the caryophyllus part of the name refers to cloves), especially the sweet wine presented to brides at the wedding ceremony, hence the folk name, sops in wine.  [4]In the Middle Ages, clove pinks were used as a substitute for the prohibitively expensive cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata) in spiced wine and beer. Chaucer wrote of “clove-gilofre… to putte in ale, whether it be moyste or stale”.  It is said that the Spaniards and Romans used carnation flowers as a spicy flavouring in wine.  [5]

Carnations are associated with love in many parts of the world, a symbol of fascination, marriage and conjugal harmony. [6] In China, the carnation is the flower most frequently used flower in weddings,[7] while in the west, carnations are a traditional first wedding anniversary flower. Naturally, this meant that they were employed in love potions. In the late seventeenth century, the countess of Dorset was said to have used carnations in a love potion along with bay leaves, marjoram and lavender. In the Victorian Language of Flowers, the various colours of carnation had different meanings – deep red carnations indicated love, paler red carnations meant admiration, white carnations represented pure love, striped ones indicated regret that love could not be returned, and purple carnations indicated capriciousness.

In France, purple carnations are a symbol of mourning and condolence used in funeral flowers. Red carnations symbolise workers’ movements in Europe. [8]

According to a Christian legend, carnations first appeared at the crucifixion when the Virgin Mary shed tears for her son, and carnations sprang up from where they fell. Thus, the carnation became the symbol of a mother’s undying love. [9] [10] This is perhaps one of the reasons it is a traditional Mother’s Day symbol in the USA. The meaning has evolved over time, and now a red carnation is be worn if one’s mother is alive, and a white one if she has died. Similarly, in Korea, carnations are worn on Parent’s Day.

At the University of Oxford (UK) carnations are traditionally worn to all examinations; white for the first exam, pink for interim exams and red for the final exam. An apocryphal tale relates that a white carnation was kept in a red inkpot between exams, so by the last exam it was fully red. It is true that a white carnation placed in a coloured liquid (such as food colouring) will absorb colour into the flower. The green carnations worn in the USA on St Patrick’s Day are made this way, as was the green carnation popularised by the gay writer Oscar Wilde as a symbol of homosexuality, and referenced by gay composer Noël Coward’s song, ‘We All Wear a Green Carnation’.

In Italy, carnations were considered a protection from witchcraft on the dangerous night of St John’s Eve (Midsummer’s Eve) – give a witch a flower and she will have to stop and count the petals. [11]


[1] David Gledhill, The Names of Plants, Cambridge University Press, 2002

[2] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[3] Carl Linnaeus, Species Plantarum, Stockholm (1753)

[4] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[5] The Biology of Dianthus caryophyllus L. (Carnation), Australian Government Dept. of Health, Version 2.1, February 2020, http://www.health.gov.au, accessed 25.9.20

[6] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[7]  Anthony S. Mercatante, The Magic Garden: the myth and folklore of flowers, plants, trees, and herbs, Harper & Row, 1976

[8] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[9] http://www.teleflora.com/carnation/flowers-plant-info/carnation-detail.asp, accessed 11.9.21

[10] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[11] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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