Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus) member of the Caryophyllaceae family is as popular as cut flower as a garden plant. Usually grown as a bi-annual it will grow foliage the first year and then blooms the second year. Sometimes it’s a short lived perennial but when given a chance, it will reseed itself generously and behave like a long lasting perennial.
I have found it fairly easy to take care of this colorful friend which I give a place in full sun. I usually seed them indoors in late winter as they transfer well after all danger of frost has gone. Springs brings plenty of rain here in the NW, so this early summer bloomer only needs a little water during a early, long dry spell. By the time the hottest days or August roll around, my Sweet William has gone dormant after producing copious amounts of seeds.
Possibly because I pick almost all flowers for cutting, my plants tend to bloom for several years in a row, so I leave them overwintering in the hope they will bloom early next year. When some plants turn yellow or look ragged I pull them up and add a little mulch to the area and sometimes seed a bit of Red Clover in these bare spots during the winter. I like using this cover crop, it is so useful as it fixes the nitrogen in the soil so it can be taken up by other crops. Simultaneously they prevent weeds from growing. The beauty of Red Clover in bloom should not be underestimated! Blooming occurs in this cover crop a little before the Dianthus starts to shoot up it’s own blooms, so I enjoy the show of bright red Clover plumes for a little while but I make sure to cut out these plants before they start producing seeds.
Their roots however should stay in the ground for a while as this is where the nitrogen-fixing nodules are located, so let these little stumps die down naturally. You can plant new plants from the greenhouse in-between the clover stumps at this time.
Sweet William originally hails from southern Europe and was cultivated by monks as early as the 1100‘s and in the 16th century Sweet William was used in the gardens of Henry the Vlll’s Hampton Court Palace. It has now widely naturalized in Europe as well as North America. The development of this Dianthus for the floral industry came in the 18th and 19th century.
It was John Gerard a 16th century botanist and herbalist who first referred to Dianthus barbatus as ‘Sweet Williams’ in his 1596 garden catalog.
The name ‘Dianthus’ comes from the Greek, ‘dios’ meaning ‘divine’ and ‘anthos’ is ‘flower’. The epithet ‘barbatus’ means bearded and all sources checked explains that this name refers to the fuzzy or beard-like growth at the flower’s center. However I have my doubts about that concept as this fuzzy growth in the center is nothing else but the stamen of the flowers. I rather think that the beard-like growth that forms as the flower develops, is the root of the name. However I have not been able to find any reference to such a claim.
The petal are considered edible and have a mild clove like flavor. They do well in fish dishes, marmalade and cold drinks, ice cream and more. They also shine in desserts, soups, stews, sauces or tossed in a salads and of course are perfect for decorating or adding to cake.
It is better to remove the white heel at the base of the petal, this part has a bitter taste.
Dianthus species contain flavonoids in their petals.
Medicinally Dianthus barbatus is used in Homeopathy as well a Chinese herbal medicine as a diuretic for urinary tract infections.
The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Bees, lepidoptera such a Moths and Butterflies.
For the florist Sweet William can be stored at 34-36F for 7-10 days, both dry and wet storage can be equally effective. Sweet William makes a perfect mass or filler flower in many bouquet combinations. Pairing them in a seasonal bouquet with Snapdragons, Foxglove or Lupines and Allium, Roses and/or Peonies is always a winner. They might not play a mayor role but their intense colors stand out brightly while offsetting the focus flowers with gusto. Their intricate flower clusters will draw you in for a closer look and then the faint clove like fragrance starts playing with your senses and all you can do is surrender to their charm.
Florists like to include Sweet William not only to express finesse or gallantry but Dianthus barbatus also asks subtly for a smile, which surely will be granted, how can it not?
Was is smiles that Cate Middleton hoped to see at her marriage to Prince William or was the inclusion of this flower a nod to her gallant prince William? Who knows? The duchess of Cambridge has not elaborated on her choice of bouquet flowers. However we can conclude that she likes to keep the season, Lilly of the Valley as well as the Sweet William, was certainly in season that April in 2011.
Sweet William can be propagated from seed, cuttings, or division, but keep in mind that seeds of cultivars will not breed true but can turn out to be a different color or pattern altogether. However Dianthus varieties do cross pollinate easily and hence many new hybrids have occurred over time.
Seed in your garden in late summer for blooms the next year or seed indoors in tray or small pots in late winter and plant after last frost. These plants may or may not bloom the first year.
Sweet William likes a place in in full sun to part shade, plant about six inches apart, in loamy, slightly alkaline soil. You can crowd them a little but not too much, else they become leggy. A good tip is to add some lime into the planting soil for stronger plants.
Winter hardy to USDA Zones 3-9.
Well that’s all for now folks, go out there and pick a few flowers.