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Dianthus: How to Grow and Care Dazzling Dianthus Flowers

Dianthus How to Grow and Care Dazzling Dianthus Flowers

Dianthus are a firm favourite of gardeners and florists the whole world over. It’s not hard to see why these delightful plants are fondly known as ‘the flower of the Gods’, with their unique frilly blooms and intense perfume. Perfect for beds, borders, pots, and even bouquets, if pink is your colour, then Dianthus is the plant for you!

Find out all about these pretty pinks and how to grow them with our ultimate guide to dianthus. 

What is Dianthus? 

What is Dianthus 

Dianthus is a large genus of flowering plants belonging to the Caryophyllaceae family. The genus contains a mixture of around 300 annual, biennial, and perennial species, although it has been extensively bred to develop more than 27,000 accepted cultivars.

Dianthus are famed for their distinctive sweet, lightly spiced scent, and their pink frilly petals. Some species bloom in springtime, whilst others bloom in the peak of summer, and others in the autumn, with a select few varieties even having two blooming periods throughout the year.

Dianthus are known by many other names, including Carnations, Sweet Williams, and Pinks. Originating mainly from warm areas of Mediterranean Europe and Asia, there are also some dianthus varieties which are native to Northern and Southern Africa. 

Dianthus plants typically have tall, slender, grass-like stems and distinctive blue-green-coloured foliage. They range in height from around four inches to three feet, depending on the species, meaning they are equally suited to the back of a border or the very front of a bed.

Dianthus flowers are almost always pink, but they display a truly dazzling diversity of shades and tones, ranging from the palest blush to the deepest fuchsia. Occasionally, yellow, red, or pure white dianthus flowers can be found. Typically, the flowers are five-petalled, although some varieties have more intricate double flowers. The blooms exude a rich scent which is often likened to cloves, and coupled with their vivid pink colour, are a real favourite for bees, butterflies, and other native pollinators.  

Uses of Dianthus 

Uses of Dianthus 

The flowers of dianthus are often used in culinary arts as a garnish, taking advantage of both the bold colours and strong fragrances to complement dishes. They are also added as a spice-like ingredient to a range of recipes, both sweet and savoury because of their strong flavour. 

The scented oils of dianthus flowers are commonly extracted and used in essential oils, perfumes, and aromatherapy, whilst in traditional herbal medicine, the flowers are brewed into a herbal tea and used as a diuretic

History of Dianthus 

History of Dianthus 

Early records of dianthus flowers from early Roman and Greek writings suggest that they were held in high regard by botanists, and they were popular eaters in cut flower arrangements of the time. In fact, the genus name hails from the ancient Greek Dios, meaning ‘of Zeus’ and anthos, meaning ‘flower’. Roughly translated, the name dianthus means ‘God’s flower’.

Dianthus are colloquially knowns as ‘pinks’, and whilst it is true that the overwhelming majority of their flowers are pink-hued, the true origin of this moniker actually honours the characteristic frilled edges of their petals. ‘Pinking’ is a 14th Century English verb, meaning to decorate with frills or perforations, much like the borders of the dianthus flower.

It’s thought that the colour pink actually takes its name from the dianthus flower, rather than the flower being named after the colour!

Dianthus was a favoured flower of the great playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, and some say that the common dianthus name, Sweet William, was given in his honour.

What does Dianthus symbolise? 

What does Dianthus symbolise 

Dianthus has long been associated with the gods, and as such has earned a reputation for being the flower of the divine. In Korea, dianthus flowers are used in divination ceremonies as an instrument through which the diviner is able to predict the future. 

In the Victorian Language of Flowers, dianthus was thought to represent love, affection, and admiration, and these associations with romance have made dianthus popular flowers for wedding bouquets. 

Dianthus flowers are frequently depicted in Christian iconography and Renaissance period Old Master artworks. They are associated with the crucifixion of Christ, having apparently sprung up from the ground where the Virgin Mary’s tears fell. 

Types of dianthus 

Types of dianthus 

There are over 27,000 different dianthus cultivars, each one as beautiful and as fragrant as the next. To help you make sense of this dizzying array of dianthus options, we’ve narrowed down some of the most common groups of dianthus that you might like to grow. 

Carnations are some of the best-known, and best-loved, types of dianthus. They offer beautiful double-flowered blooms in a range of red and pink hues. Each petal features the delicate frilled edges that are so characteristic of the dianthus genus.

Often exceeding 20 inches in height, Carnations have sturdy stems which are ideal for cut flower arrangements, so you can enjoy dianthus both outside and inside your home. They like at least four hours of sunlight per day, and loose, well-draining soil. 

China Pinks are a stunning biennial dianthus variety. Although relatively short-lived compared to perennial varieties, they certainly make an impression with their punchy fuchsia and scarlet-coloured petals often framed by a frilly white border.

China Pinks can range in height from 6 to 30 inches tall, but usually have a modest spread, making them ideal for pots and containers. Plant your China Pinks somewhere with plenty of sunlight and moist, but well-draining soil. 

Cottage Pinks are also known as ‘old-fashioned pinks’. They are slightly smaller than their towering carnation cousins, although they produce an equally mesmerising display of frilly pink-petalled flowers throughout late spring and into summer.

Typically reaching between 12 and 15 inches in height, the fringed flowers which sit atop their slender stems take on an almost feather-like appearance. Cottage Pinks are a low-robust variety of dianthus, being relatively drought-tolerant once established, and cold-tolerant down to temperatures of around -30°C. 

Alpine dianthus, known commonly as ‘Alpine Pink’ has a generous blooming period, often displaying its intricately decorative pink flowers from summer all the way through to autumn. These small but mighty dianthus rarely exceed eight inches tall, but their spreading growth habit makes them ideal for ground cover.

They are also frequently grown in rockeries or gravel gardens, since Alpine dianthus can happily survive in very poor soil conditions, so long as it is well-draining. 

Sweet Williams are a hugely popular type of dianthus, not least because of their attractively arranged flowers, which protrude in densely packed mounds from the foliage. Ranging in colour from palest pinks and off-whites to vivid violets, or even deep maroons, and often featuring two-toned or ringed markings on the petals, Sweet William offers plenty of choices.

As one of the taller varieties of dianthus, Sweet Williams usually grow to around 24 inches tall. The perennial varieties offer plenty of attractive foliage whilst not in bloom, although there are also annual and biennial varieties. Sweet Williams like rich, well-draining soil and a full sun position. 

If you’re after a truly unique dianthus for your garden, why not grow one of the few yellow flowering cultivars? These sunny varieties are bred from a single ancestor, Dianthus knappii, which hails from mountainous regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. Extensive cultivation means there is now a whole host of yellow dianthus cultivars available, and they are sure to stand out proudly amongst their pink counterparts. 

Growing dianthus from seed 

Growing dianthus from seed 

Whilst the most popular species of dianthus are readily available to buy as plug plants from nurseries and garden centres, you will find a much greater variety on offer if you chose to grow yours from seed. 

The best time to sow your dianthus seeds will depend on the variety you are going to grow. Perennial varieties should be started off during late autumn or early spring, whilst biennial and annual varieties can be started outdoors in spring, or even earlier indoors. Perennial varieties sown outside won’t bloom until the following year, whilst annual and biennial varieties started outside will usually bloom in around three months. 

Sowing Dianthus Indoors

If you’re starting your dianthus seeds indoors, sow them six to eight weeks before the last frost is due. This gives the seedlings time to establish before being planted out. Use a well-draining seed tray and loose, well-draining substrate. Dianthus seeds need lots of light to germinate, so don’t cover them with soil in the seed trays, just scatter them over the soil’s surface. Place the tray on a warm, sunny windowsill and regularly mist the soil.

Indoors, germination should take around three weeks for perennial varieties, and less for annuals. You can speed the process up a little by shrouding the tray in clear plastic to boost the humidity and warmth. Once the seedlings are around four inches tall, they are ready to be planted outside. Established seedlings can be transferred to their intended growing anytime after the final frost.

Sowing Dianthus Outdoors 

You could also sow your dianthus seeds directly outdoors during early spring. Choose a warm, sunny position with fertile, well-draining soil. Scatter the seeds thinly and cover them with a very fine layer of soil for added protection, ensuring that plenty of light can still penetrate through to the seeds. Keep the seedlings lightly moist until they are well established, after which they can be watered in the same way as mature plants. 

How to care for Dianthus 

How to care for Dianthus 

Now you know how to nurture your dianthus from seed to seedling, let’s take a look at how to care for them once matured.

Pots and positioning

The best time to plant out young dianthus plants is in spring. If planting young dianthus in a border, wait until the last frost has passed, and give them at least six to twelve inches of space in every direction, depending on the species. Make sure the hole you dig is not too deep. The rootball should sit flush, or even slightly proud of the soil to avoid water pooling around the roots in wet weather. 

Dianthus are perfectly happy being grown in containers too. In fact, most species have a relatively modest spread that is well suited to pots. Just make sure that the container has plenty of drainage holes. Alpine varieties are very hardy and can survive in very poor, arid conditions, so they are the perfect plant to fill a rock garden or a position which is exposed to harsh conditions. 


Dianthus plants need loose, well-draining soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH level. They don’t tolerate wet soil, so avoid planting yours in heavy clay soil or in areas that are prone to becoming waterlogged.

Work plenty of horticultural grit through the soil before planting your dianthus to help with drainage, but don’t add too much organic matter as this can cause the roots to rot. Avoid mulching the beds where your dianthus are growing, as the layer of mulch will cause the soil to retain too much moisture, and again, this can cause your dianthus roots to quickly rot.


These sun-loving plants need plenty of light in order to bloom. Position yours somewhere that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Dianthus that are planted in even a partially shaded area will struggle to produce flowers.  


As a general rule, mature dianthus plants should only need around an inch of water per week during their growing season. Be cautious not to overwater them, even in hot weather. Always allow the top two inches of soil to dry out thoroughly between waterings.

They’re reasonably drought tolerant once established, so it’s best to err on the side of caution and underwater them rather than overwater them since they will quickly succumb to root rot if over-saturated. 



Dianthus aren’t a particularly hungry plant, although they do best when grown in a moderately fertile substrate. To give their blooms a boost, you can add a little all-purpose plant food to their soil in early spring, just before they start to flower, and again in summer to encourage re-blooming but this isn’t essential. 


To keep them looking their best, you should deadhead your dianthus regularly throughout their blooming season. This will encourage repeat flowers and a later blooming period. Be mindful of any new buds emerging from the stems when deadheading. You should snip well above these buds to preserve the new flowers within them.

At the end of summer and into autumn, you may find your perennial dianthus stems become straggly. You can cut them back by around a third to encourage dense new growth for the next season. There’s no need to prune annuals back in this way, as they will simply die off after blooming.

Even perennial dianthus are relatively short-lived, however. They will become woody and sparse as they age. Once this happens, pruning is futile as they will never return to their youthful vigour. Instead, it’s best to dig them up and completely replace them with young, fresh dianthus in the following spring. 


Winter care for your dianthus will depend on the variety you have chosen to grow. Annuals can be dug up and discarded in late summer once they finish blooming. Biennial varieties should simply be left in the soil, ready for their blooming period the following spring.

Perennial varieties can be cut back to a few inches above the ground in the autumn to help conserve their energy for next season. Alpine dianthus are particularly cold-hardy and need no special treatment over winter, whilst container-grown dianthus can be more vulnerable to freezing conditions, so move them to a sheltered spot if possible. 



How long does Dianthus live?

The lifespan of your dianthus will depend on the particular variety you choose to grow. Some dianthus varieties are annuals, meaning they will only live for one year, blooming once before dying back. Other varieties are biennial, having a two-year life cycle from seed to bloom to death, whilst perennial varieties can survive and bloom for several consecutive years with the right care. 

Is dianthus toxic? 

Dianthus are not toxic to humans, and in fact, the flowers are a common ingredient in many foods, due to their aromatic flavour. If you have inquisitive pets, though, you may want to proceed with caution, since dianthus contains chemicals which can be poisonous to cats and dogs, causing stomach upsets, and in extreme cases, respiratory problems.

Wrap Up

Wrap Up

Dianthus flowers are surely some of the most charming flowers to grow. A real treat for the senses with their delightful colours and intense fragrance, these flowers are difficult to resist (for humans and pollinators alike!). And with almost 30,000 cultivars to choose from, there’s no reason for your garden not to be pretty in pink this year! 

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Emily Grice

Emily Grice

Em Grice is a content writer specialising in horticulture and botany who combines her respect for the natural world with her love for the written word. A regular contributor to a range of international publications and organisations, she is most at peace when pottering in her own little garden in the north of England

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