Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) are herbaceous perennial plants thought to have originated from the Mediterranean region – however, over two thousand years of cultivation has made it almost impossible to know their true origins for sure. Some believe that carnations date as far back as Greek and Roman times, where they were used for garlands and other elaborate decorations. Many scholars believe that the name ‘carnation’ comes from ‘coronation’ or ‘corone’ because of the flower’s use in Greek ceremonial crowns. Its scientific name – ‘Dianthus’ – is an amalgamation of the Greek words ‘dios’ (meaning God) and ‘anthos’ (meaning flower), which literally translates to ‘the flower of God’.
There are other claims that the true origin of the carnation actually lies within Christianity. Christian legend tells us that carnations first appeared when Jesus was carried to the Cross – as the Virgin Mary cried tears of sorrow over her son’s plight, carnations rose from the earth. It is for this reason that the pink carnation symbolises a mother’s undying love in Christian cultures.
Whatever their origins, carnations have become one of the most commercially produced flowers in the world. There are now over three hundred species, the most common of which are annual carnations, border carnations and perpetual-flowering carnations. All carnations are bisexual and bloom in the summer months, but their flowers differ and can come in branched or forked clusters. Dianthus caryophyllus have five petals while other species like border carnations have double flowers and as many as forty petals.
Each species of carnation has its own variety of colours with each shade carrying a different meaning. Shades of pink and red have warm sentiments of admiration, affection and deep love, while shades of yellow often denote disappointment and dejection. However, other cultures have their own interpretations of the flower. In Spain, the red carnation is the national flower and is celebrated in Spanish folklore, often being thrown into bullfighting rings to congratulate winning fighters. In France and other Francophone cultures, however, carnations are associated with bad luck and misfortune. In fact, the purple carnation is traditionally used as a funeral flower and given to offer condolences for the loss of a loved one.
Thanks to their splendid array of colours and the fact that they continue to bloom for a long time after being cut, carnations have become a firm favourite amongst florists, selling particularly well on occasions like Mother’s Day. This is because the founder of Mother’s Day, Miss Anna Jarvis, used carnations at the first Mother’s Day celebration because they were her own mother’s favourite flower.