Les Hodge | Carnation a treasured garden heirloom

HERITAGE: The gorgeous carnation, with its incredible diversity, is one of the oldest and most beloved cultivated plants.
HERITAGE: The gorgeous carnation, with its incredible diversity, is one of the oldest and most beloved cultivated plants.

Few other garden plants have such a list of attributes as the carnation. Grown by gardeners and herbalists for centuries, it belongs to the Dianthus family of hardy perennials and annuals, and is one of the most loved and oldest known cultivated plants.

It was originally known as sops-in-wine from the custom of dipping a carnation (or gilly flower as it was known) in a glass of wine or ale adding a subtle clove scent. It was also put in hot drinks to give a spicy flavour. 

The wild form of carnation was introduced to England in the sixteenth century, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that hybridisers began to develop the perpetual flowering types.   

These popular cut flowers make excellent bedding plants with their upright, compact habit and pleasing silvery/green foliage. The highly-fragrant flowers come in white, cream and pale yellow through every shade of red to pink and purple in pure colours or a variety of stripes and patterns.

Carnations like a well-drained soil in an open, but sheltered, sunny position. They resent being crowded by other plants so allow them plenty of space to spread out. 

Before transplanting seedlings the soil should be worked into as friable a state as possible so that oxygen and water are able to penetrate deeply.

An application of potash is beneficial to produce hardy plants and to enhance the colour and quality of flowers.

Spring is the best time to plant carnations. The depth is important for, if the stem is buried too deep, it may rot. Make the hole in the ground just large enough to take the root ball, but not so small as to cause root damage which will check the plant’s growth.

Spacings should be about 30 centimetres apart for the compact varieties and 35 to 40 centimetres for the more vigorous types. After planting, water them in well if the ground appears dry and there is no sign of rain looming. 

Carnations are not surface rooters and like a cool, deep root run so it’s important to keep the soil cool and moist especially during the hot months.

Apply a mulch around the plants to suppress weeds and to minimise moisture loss by the summer sun.

A light dressing of compost or poultry manure pellets in spring, just before a rain, will deliver a wonderful source of nourishment to the plants. As soon as the flower stems appear, a fortnightly feed of a complete soluble fertiliser will be greatly appreciated. 

Small plants should be pinched back if they produce very early flowering spikes. The aim is to get plants to produce nice, shrubby growth.

Propagate from small basal cuttings known as ‘slips’, by division or layering. 


November 11-12: The Launceston Horticultural Society presents its Spring Show featuring roses, irises and rhododendrons at St Ailbe’s Hall, Margaret Street, Launceston from 2pm to 5pm on Saturday and 10am to 4pm on Sunday.  Specialists stalls, cut flowers, floral art, children’s exhibits, plant stalls and refreshments make this an outstanding feature on the gardening calendar. Entry $2.

November 18-19:  The Longford Garden Club will host their 49th Spring Flower Show on Saturday 1.45pm to 5pm and Sunday from 10am to 4pm at the Longford Town Hall, Wellington Street, Longford. There’ll be displays of cut flowers, floral art, irises, roses, refreshments and well-stocked plant stalls. Entry $2.  

November 18-19: Longford Blooms Open Gardens 10am to 4pm. Tickets and map available at the Antique Shop opposite Longford Town Hall on the day.

November 21:  The Australian Plant Society meets at  Max Fry Hall, Gorge Rd, Trevallyn at 7.30pm. Alan Gray will speak on ‘Eucalyptus’.