A drift of sweetly scented cottage pinks is one of the pleasures of early summer. Cousins to carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) and sweet Williams (D. barbatus), cottage pinks were treasured by our grandparents for their tidy cushions of pointed, blue-green leaves topped by masses of spicy, clove-scented blossoms. Cottage pinks are not just pink; hues range from white to deepest burgundy, often with “eyes,” streaks, or edgings of contrasting color. In Britain, pinks have been bred since the early 17th century, and hundreds of cultivars may still be found. In America, they have fallen rather out of fashion, and the pinks usually found in garden centers are the scentless spawn of the China pink (D. chinensis).
Tolerant of drought, sun, and poor soils, cottage pinks make useful container plants, border edgers, and rock garden specimens as long as they are given good drainage. On clay soil, grow pinks in raised beds or in pots, which elevate the blooms nearer nose height, the better to enjoy the perfume. To acidic soils, add some horticultural lime; to infertile soils, well-rotted, finely sifted manure and powdered rock phosphate. Mulch with gravel or stones, and water weekly in dry weather. In winter, where snow cover is scant, cover loosely with evergreen boughs.
The ancestors of most cottage pinks descend from wild species native to well-drained grasslands, cliff sides, and mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. Spiky leaves frequently indicate adaptation to aridity, and cottage pinks are often subject to leaf diseases and crown rot in very moist, humid climates. Under such conditions, growing pinks in containers or raised beds, and regular applications of a neem-based fungicide, can be useful; so can selecting tolerant varieties.
Cottage pinks are good for cut-flower arrangements and so are often included in borders alongside other old-fashioned cottage flowers.
Pick of the Pinks
‘Bat’s Double Red’. Large double rose-mauveflowers; USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5–8
‘Birmingham’. Long-stemmed double white blossoms; Zones 4–9
‘Chomley Farran’. Doublestriped red and lavender flowers; Zones 5–10
‘Pomegranate Kiss’. Frilly cherry-red blossoms; Zones 4–9
‘Purpleton’. Double purple-pink blossoms, long-blooming if deadheaded; Zones 3–10
‘Rose de Mai’. Clay-tolerant, early-bloomingheirloom with double mauve flowers; Zones 4–9
‘Scent First’. Long-blooming double red blossoms; Zones 5–9