When Frances moved into her new home 60 years ago, a neighbor presented her with a cutting of a short, pink-flowering perennial. The plant had no name. It remained anonymous until years later when a cutting of it was passed down to me and I recognized it as a member of the dianthus family. I still do not know its specific name.
When her daughter Suzanne purchased a home, Frances gave her a clump of that same plant with the advice that it was hardy and reliable. Years later, when my wife and I purchase our home, Suzanne, in turn, gave us a cutting of that same plant. Over time, when the clump in my garden grew to maturity, I too would begin to hand out cuttings to all my friends and neighbors. The perennial was truly rugged and very well suited to our climate here in USDA Zone 4.
Prior to receiving that gift, I had not been very successful growing this family of plants. As a teenager, I had ordered dianthus many times from mail-order catalogues but the strains that I received could not survive the Montreal winters of the 1960’s. However, this anonymous dianthus, passed down from generation to generation and from one friend to another, would prove to be very hardy.
Without thinking, I chose a very challenging sunny location for my cutting. I placed it in a prominent spot in a rock garden where the earth was really too well drained, Combined with the searing heat of the sun, the dense dry clay earth created a desert-like environment. Up until then, all that survived there had been vigorous weeds and insinuous wild flowers. How was I to know that dianthus is a drought loving plant and that I had made a wise decision?
In those days, I watered my garden nightly and nourished it with generous amounts of manufactured fertilizer. The dianthus seemed to have enjoyed all that pampering; by the end of summer, it had grown from a messy, scrawny, leggy cutting into a lush cloud-shaped carpet of silver-blue pinnate foliage. The dense mat it created became a weed-free oasis surrounded by a sea of wild flowers eager to invade but unable to do so.
The following summer, that low-growing mound of pastel blue foliage produced a crop of baby-pink dianthus flowers, from which emanated a pungent, spicy aroma that intoxicated my brain. The sensory effect was euphoric. Previously, only the aroma of dwarf Korean lilacs had given me a similar sensation.
Inspired by this fantasy-like aromatic experience, I attacked the now-lush mound of dianthus in order to propagate it. I wanted to spread this source of pleasure throughout. After all, if one mound could be so powerful, surely several would be hypnotic.
Propagating dianthus was not an easy task because the makeup of the root ball is illusory. While the plant may spread in all directions, its roots are confined to a very spindly compact fortress at its center.
Suzanne had dug into the center of her plant to give me a viable cutting. I was more inclined to separate several strands of the plant from the root ball’s perimeter. Both methods result in the mother plant and its cuttings to appear ragged for a while, but it is worth the messiness to achieve a greater goal.
I also discovered that it is possible to remove strands of the plants with or without roots attached - it didn’t seem to matter. So rugged is this perennial that rootless pieces thrived and established themselves over time to produce lush plant mats even when placed into my dry, hot clay bed. As an added bonus, the spreading mats would eventually cascade over the boulders in the rock garden to create miniature waterfalls of plants, now silver blue and later baby pink.
After propagating, the front borders of my flowerbed shimmered with the silver blue trimming that is dianthus. I was delighted with the pungent aroma the plants produced in early summer. I was also pleased that the foliage did not turn brown in autumn; it held its blue-spruce color up until the first snowfall, when it disappeared – color intact - under a blanket of white.
The following season, when the warm spring sun melted the snow, the silver- blue foliage appeared to have been untouched by winter. It provided a pleasant surprise of color in the garden, when all else was still brown.
From many sources, I had learned that dianthus will rebloom during the summer if the first crop is dead headed. I tried to achieve that second flourish for many years until my body lost some of its flexibility. The flowers grow so close to the ground that some mature gardeners will find it challenging to engage in the heavy-duty crouching required for this task.
This is not a one-dead-head-at-a-time job either. The chore requires a hedge trimmer using one or several swoops to remove the miniature florets. A hand clipper will not do because there are too many tiny flowers to manicure.
However, in my experience, the second batch of blooms produced by the dead headed perennial was never as spectacular as the first. The bending and crouching required to produce the meager additional crop did not justified the hard work. Eventually, I gave up.
Long after I recived my first dianthus cutting, newer varieties began to appear on the market. Sadly, not one has proven to be as hardy or robust as the anonymous pink hand-me-down. In my growing zone, the newer botanical inventions tend to last only one or two seasons. There is something to be said for the good old reliable “heritage” perennials. They never disappoint.