Pinks: Evocation of the Past - Thompson & Morgan

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Pinks: Evocation of the Past

Richard Bird looks at old-fashioned pinks, which more than any other plants evoke the gardens of yesteryear.

Mention old-fashioned pinks to anybody, gardener or non-gardener, and they will immediately know what you are talking about. They have an evocative quality about them that almost defies definition. They conjure up the hurly-burly of the cottage garden and yet at the same time have a serenity all of their own. The flowers have a delicacy and yet still have substance, while the perfume they possess can be quite heady; filling the warm summer's air with the scent of cloves.

Yet in spite of all these qualities it is difficult to give an accurate definition of an old-fashioned pink. There is certainly no botanical definition beyond the fact that they belong to the genus Dianthus and that their ancient lineage contains a great variety of blood including that of D. plumarius. But other pinks, not only old-fashioned ones, come under this umbrella and the only way of defining them is to say that the name refers to pinks in cultivation before the end of the last century or more recent varieties that have the same general appearance and perfume.

They are generally mat-forming plants with a delicate linear foliage, which contrasts quite noticeably with the heavier, coarser leaves and stems of the modem pinks.

The flowers can be single, semi-double or double. The double varieties often have a blousiness about them, particularly those that split their calyces so that the petals tumble out like umpteen frilly petticoats. This uncontrolled fullness and lack of symmetry makes them unpopular with the show fraternity as does their somewhat restricted palette of colours. The size of the flower heads varies from 2½in (6.35cm) to less than 1in (2.5cm), the doubles usually being the largest, although some of the singles can be surprisingly large disks, often with a startling, contrasting eye.

The petals are usually fringed, the majority giving the impression that they have been edged with 'pinking' shears. But the depth of the incisions does vary, some being almost smooth while others are cut to almost a third of the length of the petals.

As already mentioned there is not a great deal of colour variation in the old-fashioned pinks and yet within this limited range there seems to be an infinite number of variations both in tone and patterns. The two basic colours are white and pink/maroon. The white varies from a clear white (perhaps not so glisteningly pure as in some modern varieties) to a creamy white. The pink varies from the most lightest and delicate of pinks through to a dark mahogany red. The pink can also vary from a lilac pink to purple. None of the bright, synthetic colours that appear in carnations and modem pinks are present.

Most pinks are either selfs or bi-coloured. The selfs can be either white or any shade of pink. The bi-colours can be any combination of white and pink or pink and another pink. There is a great variety of patterning on the bi-coloured. The most common is a single-coloured ground with either a different coloured central eye or a band just out from the centre. Laced varieties have a line extending from the central eye round the edge of each petal.

While colour and pattern are the main determinants in the distinction between the different varieties it must be borne in mind that both can change with age and in some cases a flower a few days old seems to bear no resemblance to its first appearance. Pinks can darken or lighten. Marginal lacing can merge forming a single colour or just leaving an irregular blotch in the centre of the petal. Conversely single colours can break up into patterns. Other variations, particularly in size, can often be seen in the odd flowers that appear out of season.

Old-fashioned pinks have the disadvantage that they only flower once, basically in June with an overlap into May and July.


Old-fashioned pinks thrive best in a light soil. They do not like the soil to be acidic, preferring limey conditions, although they will happily live in neutral ones. Of course it takes exceptions to prove all rules and I can remember the first pinks I ever knew growing in my parent's garden on heavy, sticky Wealden clay. The soil is now much improved but pinks still grow there.

They should be planted in a sunny position and, although the site should be warm and free-draining, they do not like to get too dry at the roots. Dampness during the winter can be a problem and in wetter areas it might be advisable to cover the plants with a sheet of glass but under no circumstances should they be totally enclosed, air must be able to circulate.

Since they are low-growing it is sensible to plant them near the front of a border; they look especially good where they can flop over a path or terrace, particularly as this allows their perfume to be appreciated at close quarters.

Young plants should be planted out in autumn and they should flower the following season. Although perennial they are not long lived and should be renewed every three or four years. Indeed, it is a sensible precaution to take a few cuttings each year to ensure the survival of the plants over winter. The vigour of the plants is also helped by dead heading as the flowers fade.


Propagation of old-fashioned pinks is easy, at least for the majority. A few have become a bit temperamental with old age and need a lot of coaxing. Because we are dealing with named varieties they must be increased vegetatively to ensure that the resulting plants are the same as the parent plant. Normally this is achieved by taking cuttings of non-flowering shoots in the summer. The cutting should be 2-3in (5-7.5cm) long and should be cleanly cut just beneath a node. The lower leaves are cut off, ensuring that no snags remain. They can then be dipped for a depth of about 1in (2.5cm) in rooting compound (not so much to help them root, as most produce roots readily enough, but more to help prevent fungal attack as most rooting powders contain a fungicide). The cuttings can then be inserted into a cuttings compost consisting of 50% sharp sand and 50% peat. If the air is reasonably buoyant there is no need to cover the cuttings closely, if, on the other hand, the air is dry then it is sensible to cover the cuttings with a propagator lid or even a plastic bag. Like so many grey-leaved plants, Dianthus hate being too closely covered and can succumb to rot. Keep the compost moist and the cuttings out of direct sunlight.

In a few weeks they will have formed a good root system and can be potted up in a standard potting compost.

A variation on cuttings is pipings. Here the shoot is pulled apart rather than being cut, the stem coming away from the junction of the leaves as if out of a socket. This is not practiced so frequently now as it can bruise the piping allowing rot to set in.

Another vegetative method is by layering. Here a shoot is bent downwards and pinned to the ground with a piece of wire. The points of contact should be a small prepared bed of potting compost and a further layer should be placed above the stem. To help promote the formation of root the stem can be partially split at the point where it is underground.

In spite of all these methods the cottage gardener probably had little time but to break off a part of the stem and push it into the ground, where sufficient struck to keep them going. It says something for the constitution of these plants that they have survived down the centuries. They have not succumbed to disease or to the lack of propagation.


Although there is a general consensus on the naming of old-fashioned pinks, there is no guarantee that they are the same as in the past. Unnamed pinks have been found in old cottage gardens and names have been given to them as they resemble plants described in old books, but these descriptions were often rather vague. Another problem is that communication was not as widespread as it is today and plants often had their own regional names; in some cases the same name might be used for different plants in different areas.

An example of this is 'Sops-in-Wine' a cultivar name that embraces a whole host of different plants, each claiming to be the original. But who can tell after ten centuries that any one plant is the same as first grown in medieval times?

Another cause for variation is that a pink may well seed close to the original parent and, because of hybrid vigour, throw up some good strong shoots which are used as cutting material. As these would be non-flowering when taken it is possible that the resulting plant might be slightly different from the parent and once planted somewhere else the difference would not be spotted and yet it would still be carrying the same name. This is a classic way of getting variation in plants all bearing the same clonal name.

This is all by the way of a warning that there are plants in cultivation bearing the same name but varying in appearance. In fact from a purely visual point of view it does not matter what the plant is called as long as it is attractive and most of the ones we have inherited are certainly that.


One of the oldest is 'Sops-in-Wine' which is reputed to have its origins back in medieval times. It was so called as it was added to wines to give them the flavour and smell of cloves. Spices would have been expensive and yet this plant, which could have been grown locally, could impart the impression of what we now drink as a mulled wine and thus act as a very good substitute. It is a large, fully double flower with a white ground and purple or maroon central eye depending on which variation you obtain. It has the most wonderful clove fragrance.

Another plant that is well known for its fragrance is 'Mrs Sinkins'. This plant was not raised until the middle of the last century by a Mr Sinkins who named it after his wife. It is again a double, this time pure white except for the trace of green right in the centre of the eye. This is exposed when the calyx splits and the petals flop out. It is a very blousy-looking flower and would not be appreciated on the show bench but in the garden it is an attractive well-perfumed plant. It is a prolific flowerer and seems to be tough as it has not lost any of its vigour in the last 150 years.

While on white pinks another great favourite of mine is 'Musgrave's Pink' (sometimes called 'Charles Musgrave', 'Green Eyes', 'Washfield', 'Tiverton', 'Avalon' or 'C. T. Musgrave', just proving the point of the multiplicity of names!) This is a single white with a very obvious pale green eye. This pale green sets off the white giving the plant a wonderful freshness. Again it has a good fragrance.

Freshness can also be applied to the appearance of 'Inchmery'. This eighteenth century introduction has good clear, shell-pink flowers. These are double and grow paler as the flower goes over. It seems, at least in my garden, to have a longer season than many of the other old-fashioned varieties. The strong scent is also fresh and not so cloying as 'Mrs Sinkins'.

'Pheasant's Eye' has quite a different flower. It is a semi-double, with the petals having a white ground and a dark velvety maroon central zone which extends in a thin line around the deeply fringed edge. When the flower first opens the central petals stand up like pheasant's ears, the colour forming the eye below.

Another bi-colour is the 'Cockenzie Pink'. It is also known as the 'Montrose Pink' after the house in Scotland where it originated in about 1720. This is a semi-double with fringed petals having a dark pink ground with an even darker pink (damson is the colour usually quoted) central eye. It is one of the earliest to flower and has a relatively long flowering period. As with all the others, it is scented.

A nineteenth century pink that was and is a great favourite of gardeners, both past and present, is 'Sam Barlow'. This has a fully double flower with white fringed petals and a dark mahogany or chocolate central blotch. It is very fragrant and very blousy with the petals spilling out of their calyces.

'Queen of Sheba' is a very old plant, dating from the sixteenth century. It is a single with a white ground and delicately traced lacing in a magenta colour. The patterning varies with the age of the flower but generally the lacing meets in the centre of the petal like a butterfly's wing, creating two white 'eyes' on each petal.

'Fountains Abbey' comes from the same period and has similar patterning but it is a semi-double, bordering on a double, and the markings are a darker crimson colour.

An even older pink, from the fifteenth century is 'Caesar's Mantle' which is a challenge to keep going as it is becoming difficult to propagate. This is a deep carmine pink with a maroon central zone. It is also called 'Abbotswood' or 'Bloodie Pink'.

From the seventeenth century comes 'Fimbriata' an ivory white double which, like so many early doubles, splits its calyx. This blousy flower has a wonderful, heady perfume.

From the beginning of the following century comes the legendary 'Bat's Double Red'. It is a semi-double with wine-stained or ruby-coloured petals. They appear to get darker near the centre. It has the advantage of fitful repeat flowering after the main flush has passed. It has been grown for many years in the Oxford Botanic garden.

One category of old-fashioned pinks is the mule pinks. These seem to have Sweet William (D. barbatus) in their blood. The leaves are greener and without the bloom, and, while still short, they have a more upright stance. The flowers are not very large. Like Sweet Williams they are not very long-lived (usually flowering themselves to death!) and they really need to be propagated each year to ensure their continuing survival. The most popular of these is 'Emile Pare'. This was raised in France in about 1840. It has smallish double flowers of a fresh salmon pink. The flowers are very fragrant and appear over a long period in the summer. Another mule that always flowers itself to death and is even harder to keep going as it is now difficult to propagate is the beautiful 'Napoleon III'. This was raised at about the same period and again is a double but this time is a dark crimson.

There are many, many more varieties that one could describe, but one must call a halt somewhere. As long as cuttings are taken regularly, so ensuring that they do not die out, old-fashioned pinks are easy to grow and should cause no problems. Any gardener with a nose and an eye for beauty, especially if he or she has a nostalgic streak in them, should grow at least one of these wonderful plants in their garden.

Looking to fill your garden with annuals this spring & summer? Head to our annuals hub page for growing guides, helpful video tutorials & much more.

Richard Bird.

Source of article
Growing From Seed - Summer 1991 Vol. 5 Number 3
© The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan

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