A Study in Dianthus (and Penstemon and Epimedium)

A friend’s recent Facebook post of a variety of dianthus in her great-aunt’s garden prompts me to create a sort of eclectic catalog of the dianthus in my yard.

Dianthus is a genus (in the carnation family) with many species (at least 330 worldwide), which, while bearing some likeness to each other, also differ quite a bit, similarly to the way phloxes do, in size, habit, colour, leaves.  Sweet William (a biennial or a short-lived perennial, with bicoloured flowers), pinks (low-growing, can be ground covers), and carnations are all part of the genus, which generally have pink, red, and/or white flowers with notched or shredded petals. The habit of the plants can be mounded, trailing, or erect. Leaves vary from grass-like and blue-grey to flat, linear or lancelike leaves that are green, sometimes with a maroon tinge.

(If you’re interested only in dianthus, scroll on down past my two asides on penstemons and epimediums.)


ASIDE: Around here, it’s the penstemons (sometimes called beardtongue) that I think really hide their family resemblance well; as an article in Dave’s Garden says, “Penstemon is a wonderful native American genus of wildly varied, flowering perennials. This is a little known genus of vast proportions that would be hard to comprehend in one sitting, maybe even one lifetime. From dwarf ground covers to tall shrubs, xeriscaping to consistent moisture, Penstemons run the gamut of diversity.”

Wikipedia notes the commonalities of the species: “They have opposite leaves, partly tube-shaped, and two-lipped flowers and seed capsules. The most distinctive feature of the genus is the prominent staminode, an infertile stamen. The staminode takes a variety of forms in the different species; while typically a long straight filament extending to the mouth of the corolla, some are longer and extremely hairy, giving the general appearance of an open mouth with a fuzzy tongue protruding and inspiring the common name beardtongue.”

Not everyone will notice the bearded tongue, however, even when searching for it.

You might not guess, unless you knew, that my ‘Jingle Bells” penstemon (Penstemon barbatus ‘Jingle Bells’; P. barbatus is native to the western U.S.) is sister to the ‘Blue Buckle’ penstemon (P. virgatus) growing on the other side of the yard, or that either is strongly related to the ‘Husker Red’ (P. digitalis ‘Husker Red’) or ‘Dark Towers’ (a hybrid cross between P. digitalis ‘Husker Red’ and Penstemon ‘Prairie Splendor’); the ‘Dark Towers’ hybrid in particular spreads far and wide through self-seeding. One year, I had an annual penstemon — well, it’s a tender perennial, “hardy” in zones 9-11 — called Penstemon “Phoenix Pink” (Penstemon ‘Pheni Pinka’), which I should really plant again; it’s part of the trademarked Phoenix series, a hybrid of the Mexican native P. hartwegii.

‘Jingle Bell’ penstemon (Penstemon barbatus ‘Jingle Bells’)
‘Jingle Bells’ penstemon (Penstemon barbatus ‘Jingle Bells’)
‘Blue Buckle’ penstemon (Penstemon virgatus ‘Blue Buckle’)
‘Dark Towers’ penstemon: a hybrid cross between Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ and Penstemon ‘Prairie Splendor’
‘Husker Red’ penstemon (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’)
annual Penstemon Phoenix Pink (Penstemon ‘Pheni Pinka’): part of the patented ‘Phoenix’ series, a hybrid of the Mexican native Penstemon hartwegii


STILL ASIDE: Another genus with lots of variety is the epimedium (in the barberry family, and sometimes called barrenwort, bishop’s hat, or fairy wings), a rather understated, and underused, plant. There are “only” 60 or so species worldwide — and more than 300 cultivars — but the variety of leaves and the range of colours and flower shapes can be confusing.

Fine Gardening notes that the genus is “characterized by 4-petaled flowers hanging in clusters in shades of yellow, beige, pink, lavender, purple, red, or white, borne in racemes from spring to early summer.” The Brooklyn Botanic Garden says that the blossoms can “look like miniature columbines or tiny daffodils, while others appear more like spiders or stars. Species with long sprays can even resemble orchids.”  The leaves are “[m]ainly basal, 2- or 3-ternate, sometimes pinnate leaves with leathery texture. Heart- or lance-shaped leaflets” (per Fine Gardening). It’s often used as a ground cover, but the one I have is really too tall to be considered as ground covers for most gardens. The Northwest Horticultural Society lists the “10 best” you can buy in a nice spread in the first two pages of its (pdf) Spring 2011 newsletter.

The first time I tried to buy an epimedium, or even look at one in a nursery, perhaps six or seven years ago, the folks at the nursery — which is large and specialises in hostas, another mostly shade plant — had never heard of the genus. The one in my garden now came from a local plant sale; I don’t know its species or cultivar.


I’ve seen them in public gardens:

Epimedium x Lemon Zest, a hybrid at Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, June 2017
unknown variety with small white flowers, Bedrock Gardens, Lee NH, May 2017
another unknown variety, Blithewold Mansion & Gardens, Bristol, RI, May 2017
Epimedium grandiflorum var higoense ‘Bandit,’ with a red leaf edge (and white flowers), Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, June 2015
Epimedium x ‘Amber Queen,’ a hybrid with an amber yellow flower, Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, June 2015
a white flowered epimedium variety at Wave Hill in New York, May 2015 (there’s also a yellow flower in the photo that’s different; note leaf)
Epimedium x ‘Pink Champagne’ hyrbid, Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, May 2014


ASIDE OVER, and back to dianthus!

The (sort of) perennial “pinks” — whose ragged flower edges look like they could have been formed with pinking shears — have grass-like foliage, sometimes silvery or bluish green, and they’re shorter — generally 6-8 inches tall — than most of the “sweet William” varieties, which can reach 3 feet tall and have green flat, linear leaves, sometimes a bit maroon.

One series of pinks, called “cheddar” (Dianthus gratianopolitanus), is so called because it’s naturalised in the Cheddar Gorge in England; ‘Firewitch” is a common and beloved variety.

Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’ when it was planted
Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’ in the front border
Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch,’ close
Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’ in the sunroom border
closer looks at Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’ in the sunroom border

Like Dianthus plumarius, often called “cottage pinks” (other common names include feathered pinks, grass pinks, garden pinks), and Dianthus x alwoodii (Allwood pinks – I’ve got one called ‘Frosty Fire’), the cheddar pinks are quite fragrant.

Dianthus x allwoodii ‘Frosty Fire’ – close

There’s also Dianthus superbus (fringed pinks), Dianthus deltoides (wild pinks, maiden pinks), Dianthus armeria (Deptford pinks), and many more. None is native to New England, though some species are commonly found in the wild here now (see Go Botany).

Dianthus deltoides – seen on the Northern Rail Trail, Grafton, NH

Some other “pinks” I’ve had in this garden:

‘Coconut Surprise’ dianthus – front border. It’s a trademarked hybrid in the “Scent First” series.

Below is a plant I bought this year at a local plant sale to replace another dianthus that gave up the ghost (as at least one of these “perennials” does every year; I don’t know if it’s me or them); I don’t know the variety because it wasn’t labelled.

pink and red dianthus, front yard 
pink and red dianthus, front yard – close

The biennial “sweet William” (Dianthus barbatus) by contrast, is not strongly scented, though it has a showy, frilly, bicolour flower. Another species, Chinese pinks (Dianthus chinensis), despite their common name are more like sweet William than other pinks; they’re erect biennials, 2 feet tall or so, and without noticeable fragrance. They are hardy only in USDA zones 6-9.

Most of the “pinks” like sandy, alkaline soil, while carnations. sweet William and cottage pinks prefer richer soil.

At some point, I had a carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) in the garden, although it was about the same short height as the pinks:

Dianthus caryophyllus ‘Grenadin White’ – front yard

I never actually planted a sweet William plant, but I sowed “Bring Home the Butterflies” seed mix from Botanical Interests a few years ago in the fruit guild, and since then have had lots of self-seeding sweet William there, and in the rock wall, and this year there’s one in the shade garden. Self-seeding does not always produce offspring true to the parents. I actually prefer the self-seeded flowers in the rock wall more than most of the originals or their self-seeding children in the fruit guild.

All photos of sweet William are from this season.

Sweet Williams In the fruit guild: 

sweet William flowering in the fruit guild (and some yarrow)


leaves of sweet Williams in fruit guild

Sweet Williams In the rock garden:


sweet William and fleabane in rock wall


leaves of sweet William in rock wall

And the new Sweet William in the shade garden:

magenta sweet William in shade garden


Hmm … I’m feeling I want to add more dianthus, epimedium, and perhaps another annual penstemon next year.




One comment

  1. Love it! I always distinguished between pinks and sweet william. I knew Pinks were Dianthus but I did not know Sweet William was!! Thanks. my friend! So happy to have inspired a post!!!!

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