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Thursday, March 25, 2004 07:49 pm

Pretty in pink (and red, and white. . .)

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Dianthus is a flower-garden favorite. Easy to grow, dianthus plants produce beautiful, bright and generally fragrant blooms.

There are more than 300 species of dianthus, ranging in size from six inches to three feet, including annuals, biennials and perennials. Common varieties include pinks, maiden pinks, carnations, Sweet William, cottage pinks, clove pinks and gillyflower.

Because they cross-pollinate, dianthus hybrids are common. Area gardeners will find a few common species readily available:

• Dianthus barbatus. Sweet William is a short-lived perennial or biennial that grows from five inches to two feet high. A few newer varieties of annual flowering Sweet William are available, but gardeners are probably most familiar with this plant as an old-fashioned cottage garden flower. The blooms of the species and many hybrids have a central spot, or "eye." Most flowers are single, sometimes double; flowers appear in dense clusters from late spring through summer. Flowers may or may not be fragrant. Sweet William is winter-hardy in central Illinois. Varieties include Pinocchio mix (dwarf biennial), the Giant Imperial series (tall biennial), the Hollandia series (tall annual), Cinderella mix (annual hybrid), Amazon Neon Duo (18- to 24-inch perennial), the Noverna series (medium-tall annual) and the Heritage series (medium-tall annual).

• D. chinensis. Known as annual or China pinks, these flowers add a splash of color to the edge or middle of a flower garden. Originally from China, they range from six to 18 inches tall and work great as cut flowers. They produce single, small, scentless red, pink or white flowers intermittently all summer. Some varieties to consider are Persian Carpet, Paste Bedder, China Doll, Snowfire, Magic Charms, Corona Cherry Magic and Raspberry Parfait. The common name, pink, refers to the flowers' serrated edges. ("Pink" means to cut or notch -- think of pinking shears.)

• D. chinensis x barbatus. This group combines the best of both species (D. barbatus and D. chinensis). Plants flower freely and tolerate more heat and frost than either of the individual species. Blooms tend to be larger as well, appearing in terminal clusters. The Ideal series of this group comprises 18 different color groupings (solids and bicolors). Some varieties to consider include Ideal Violet and Ideal Cherry Picotee.

Most dianthus can be grown easily from seed or purchased as transplants. Dianthus grow best in full sun and prefer a well-drained alkaline soil. Avoid mulching; dianthus requires good air circulation around the stems at all times.

To encourage continuous blooming, deadhead (remove dead flowers) regularly. This prevents seed formation and promotes reblooming of the plant. Dianthus self-sow readily, so allow them to go to seed in the fall if you want more plants the next summer. As a cut flower, dianthus will last up to two weeks in a vase.


For something different

To find seeds and plants of lesser-known dianthus varieties, check mail-order catalogs.

• Dianthus plumarius. The cottage pink is a low-growing perennial. Both foliage and flowers are fragrant. This heirloom species was introduced from Europe in colonial days.

• D. knappii. The only true yellow species, this plant flowers in summer and grows 16 inches tall.

• D. deltoides. The maiden pink forms evergreen tufts or mats. Plants are perennial and produce small flowers from summer to fall. Cultivars include Zing Rose, Zing Salmon and Confetti Cherry Red.

• D. superbus. The lilac pink originated in Europe and Asia. This short-lived perennial reseeds readily and produces fragrant flowers with deeply fringed petals in the summer.

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