University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
CARNATIONS—A CLASSIC CUT FLOWER
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historical reference is its use in garlands by Greeks and Romans.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
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
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
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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