For a certain type of plant enthusiast the allure of the ‘true species’ is temptation beyond temptation, but never more when it’s a true species of a plant that has been hybridised for a very long time. Take Dahlias for example; breeding has created both literally and metaphorically dazzling array of colours and forms, but despite the superb work of so many breeders there are still those of us who hold great affection for the species, ‘Dahlias as nature intended’.
I have long admired the genus Dianthus. How can any gardener with a soul not appreciate the beautiful markings, the elegant arrangement of petals, and often even the warm spicy aroma, of a bloody good Dianthus? The old varieties, thinking here in particular the white (and sometimes charmingly misshapen) blooms of Dianthus ‘Miss Sinkins’, still hold great affection with gardeners despite improvements in flower quality and season; new varieties are excellent though, and I would strongly advise against harbouring the belief that new varieties are in any way inferior or less desirable than the old varieties.
One Dianthus species has a modest but devoted cult following. Dianthus carthusianorum isn’t anywhere near as good as Dianthus cultivars, but you buy it for its overall charm rather than it being a particularly good garden plant.
Legendary 20th century rock garden expert Reginald Farrer really wasn’t a fan: ” Its lank ugliness is notorious, of tall naked stem, topped by a tight brown-calyxed head, from which spasmodically peep small spotty stars of magenta-rose or crimson.” He goes on to list varieties of the species (many of which are I believe now considered minor variations within the species rather than distinct varieties) before turning his attention to other species he considers to be “…in the same undesirable persuasion.” So Farrer really wasn’t a fan!
As any noble plant nerd knows, if you go to the trouble of getting hold of Reginald Farrer’s ‘The English Rock Garden’ (published in 1918 but still worth owning), you should probably also track down a copy of The Present-Day Rock Garden by Sampson Clay, which is subtitled ‘A Complementary Volume To Farrer’s ‘English Rock Garden”. In this superb work, Clay goes as far as to say that “…Farrer was rather less than fair to these clusterheads*, for many have a brilliance of colour sufficient to atone for other faults…” Clay also draws attention to the fact that the ‘clusterheads’ aren’t well demarcated as species and varieties, with this group merging into other Dianthus types.
In a 2003 article for British newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ writer Val Bourne not only stands up for this species as being worthy of growing, but also provides some rather enlightening history:
“The Carthusian pink is found growing wild on dry limestone hillsides in southern, central and western Europe. It is named after the Carthusian order of monks, founded in 1084, who originally came from Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble. Each monk had his own small garden and, as the order spread through Europe, so did the pink.
It was introduced into Britain in 1573 but has never been widely grown. This is changing, however. Its elegant habit, upright stance and simplicity are well-suited to modern planting styles. It has the same see-through quality as the popular Verbena bonariensis.The Telegraph Gardening; How to grow: Carthusian pink (31.5.2003)
What a difference 85 years makes! It’s so heartwarming to read Val Bourne write so fondly of this species, even recommending suitable grasses and other plants to accompany this sweet little species (before disgracing herself by recommending the addition of grit to aid drainage in clay soils, but that’s a topic for another post).
From my point of view I must admit that this demure little Dianthus has turned my head. Planted well it stands out because it’s not particularly showy, or even tidy! The small flowers on tall thin stems give it a distinctive airy grace, and it’s this that is a desirable antithesis to so many modern garden plants. If I had pick flaws with this species I would say this; firstly it could flower for a little longer (although its shorter season does make it more special when it is in flower), and secondly, more importantly, the very fine tuft of grassy foliage does make it look more than a little like undesirable weed grasses!
I would urge any gardener with suitable conditions to have faith in this cute little plant. Give it freely drained, unimproved soil with a few nice friends (for example the finer small grasses) and just enjoy this species. Don’t let the grumpy words of Reginald Farrer over 75 years ago put you off growing Dianthus carthusianorum, because as another legend of the alpine plant world, Will Ingwersen VMH, points out in his ‘Manual Of Alpine Plants’, “…the fact that it has survived in gardens for 400 years proves that it must be found desirable.”
*’clusterheads’ is the term Farrer used for this group of Dianthus species/varieties; I can’t find mention of the term in modern literature so I guess it’s dropped out of use, as have many if not all of the variety names he used for variants of Dianthus carthusionorum.