Frenched & Fragrant
by Bee Mohn
Carnations are January's flower. Give a carnation to someone special and it means “true friendship."
So says the list of birthday flowers originated by florist Vincent J. Gorley and adopted by the Society of American Florists in 1920. “Gorley's aim was to śassure Americans a blossom for every birthday,"ť says Jennifer Sparks, SAF publicist.
True carnations, Dianthus caryophyllus, are often taken for granted and overlooked, but their fragrance, durability and old-fashioned charm have everlasting appeal.
And they're easy to grow indoors and out, in pots on a terrace and in flower beds. As cut flowers they can't be beat, although hard times have befallen American growers. And there are always new developments in the seed business.
Take a closer look¦
Yuai Nursery in Salinas, California, grows 25,000 carnations, plus lilies and other flowers and ferns for the cut flower trade, all in greenhouses. They keep each carnation plant for three years in the ground. Stems are stripped or disbudded in order to grow tall and perfect. They harvest the blooms 12 to 15 times a year, reaping only one flower from each plant per cut. Blooms are shipped from Yuai's own shipping company directly to wholesalers.
Few carnation farms are left in Salinas, where there used to be many. “The South American product has really hurt our market,"ť says Terry Uchida, office manager at Yuai. “Their wages are lower and they can use any chemical they want, but we can't. Their flowers are beautiful.
Sixty to 70% of the local carnation growers have shut down, she says. “Salinas had a lot of growers but our cost to grow a carnation is 17 cents. In South America, it's nine cents. Our profit margin is lower. South America came in so cheaply, it's hard to compete."ť
Kathryn Miele, director of marketing for California Cut Flower Commission says, “Carnations used to be a huge American crop, but there are not that many growers left. They are a plant that's well-suited for growing in South America. The cost of labor is cheaper. Columbia started planting en masse 20 years ago. Our growers found they couldn't make any money at it."ť
Yuai has three grades of carnations: “fancy" with a long, straight stem and a good size head; “standard"ť is a little shorter and may have a slightly curved stem; and “short" with a shorter, possibly wiggly stem, with a calyx that may be taped together. Flowers that have bad stems, or that break off, are sold to lei makers in Hawaii. “We try to get as much as we can from every plant,"ť says Uchida.
Columbian carnations fill the tubs at New Jersey wholesale florist, Ferris Brothers, who sells 10,000 a week to area retailers. Of the 30 varieties they carry, very few of them are fragrant because hybridization favors shelf-life, bigger blooms and sturdy stems over scent. They recommend buying flowers in the tight bud stage, cutting the stems again at home, and changing the water every few days to make them last.
Carnations can be grown in a house or apartment, too, if you have the right conditions.
At Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, one Estate Greenhouse is devoted solely to carnations. Pierre du Pont, owner of the estate until 1954, grew carnations there to have a fresh supply of cut flowers to enjoy in the house. Now, over 3,000 carnation plants are grown solely as a display in itself, as if du Pont is still merrily gathering the fragrant blossoms for his family and friends. (See Longwood Gardens Estate Carnations)
If you have a greenhouse or sunny bay window, give carnations a try. Use a big pot with stakes to grow cut flower quality blooms. Give lots of sun! Juergen Steininger, section grower at Longwood, says for most people a soil-less mix is ok. “Be very careful of fertilizer in the beginning,"ť he says. He uses liquid Peters 20-10-20 once a week.
More dwarf varieties are perhaps better suited than the large florist types to growing indoors. Some are handled by Ball Horticultural Company in Chicago, plant and seed broker. Chuck Otto, technical serviceman at Ball, says the more compact varieties are also better bedding plants, such as the single stem “Bouquet" type carnation, good ones for growing in pots. Try 'Dynasty' red, purple or White Pearl. They were developed by plant breeder/producer Pan American Seed Company, widely known for their 'Wave' petunias.
“They're somewhat of a perennial, hardy to Zone 5,"ť says Otto. “They're affected more by disease than hardiness."
Growing location is extremely important for carnations, Otto says. They need full sun, well-drained soil and some protection in winter. Otto recommends pine boughs over leaves to protect from freezing and thawing. Damp soil can cause real problems --stem rot and root rot are the most common diseases.
Like them frenched and fragrant? W.Atlee Burpee & Co. sells them. Grace Romero, director of research, says carnations sell because they have the old-fashioned look. She advises to sow seed in cool weather and grow them cool like snapdragons. They're perennial down to Zone 5.
Burpee has added other types with more loose sprays on the plant. They are free blooming, more like a true garden plant.
The lightly scented semi-double Fountain Mix is one of them and has Sweet William in its pedigree. At almost two feet tall, it's perfect in a border. If planted in the fall, it comes up early in May, then can be cut back to bloom again. Sow seed directly in the garden. Burpee also sells plants.
Rose Magic is another Sweet William type with a ball-shaped head with a tri-color effect of white, pink and rose. It's also two feet tall and comes in seeds or plants.
“For us, the caryophyllus tend to bloom once in spring. They don't branch as well because each flower head is full and double,"ť Romero says. Sow seed indoors early in spring to get the full plant outside. Individual blooms last for two weeks on the plant.
You don't need a scree bed or rocky outcrop to grow this rock-garden look-alike. In a close-up garden or a shallow concrete planter, the pleasure of Dianthus kitabelii can be yours. This fragrant free-flowering perennial looks like a mossy clump in bloom. Sunshine Farm & Gardens offers it, as well as D. japonicus, a rapid self-sower that resembles the wild Deptford pink, and his Dad's favorite, D. 'Horatio,' that smells like cloves. Although Horatio can be short-lived, owner Barry Glick says it's easy to propagate cuttings. Just peel the lower leaves, dip in Rootone, and put in moist soil in a shady spot and mist. Voila! You'll have a continual supply.
In this frigid landscape, why wait for spring for a breath of fragrant air? Grow your own carnations!
** Photos Courtesy of W.Atlee Burpee & Co., www.burpee.com & Copyright Ball Horticultural Company and Juergen Steininger
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published January 01, 2004