How to Grow and Care for Dianthus Flowers

Dianthus spp.

A cottage garden favorite, Dianthus is a genus of flowering plants in the family Caryophyllaceae. Of the 300 species, most are native to Europe and Asia, a few are indigenous to north Africa, and one alpine species is native to the arctic regions of North America.

Many are herbaceous perennials, but there are some hardy annuals and biennials available, and even a few that are classified as dwarf shrubs.

Top down view of pink, purple, and white-fringed dianthus flowers in bloom.

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They feature narrow, linear leaves with a blue-green hue that appear opposite one another on narrow stems.

Flowers are typically made up of five petals, often with a frilled or zigzag edge, in hues of white or red tones that range from pale pink through to deep maroon. They are often two-toned.

With a long bloom period from late spring until early autumn, their attractive mounding growth and pretty flowers are complemented by a heady fragrance of spicy sweetness that is reminiscent of cinnamon and cloves.

Top-down shot of red and pink dianthus, with silvery green leaves.
Photo by Allison Sidhu.

With so much to love, you’re probably eager to learn how to grow these beauties in the garden. Here’s what’s to come:

Let’s dig in!

Cultivation and History

One of the earliest cultivated flowers, Dianthus species have been revered for centuries, and were common in Ancient Greek and Roman times. They were often featured in ornate friezes adorning buildings of importance, and were added to celebratory garlands.

The name of this genus is derived from a combination of the Greek words dios (god) and anthos (flower), or “flower of the gods.”

Red dianthus with dark green foliage, growing in the garden with rocks on the surrounding soil, and trees in the background.

How they came to be so named is a bit murky, but there are a couple of viable tales to consider.

One myth holds that Diana, Greek goddess of the hunt, blamed a flute-playing shepherd for scaring away her prey. In a fit of pique, she plucked out his eyes, and where they fell, red carnations grew – symbolizing innocent blood.

Two potted Dianthus chinensis flowers, with dark pink blooms bordered by lighter pink, and green spiky foliage.

In Christian mythology, it’s said that carnations first bloomed along the Via Dolorosa where Mary’s tears fell as Jesus carried the cross to Golgotha – another reference to the symbolism of innocent blood.

Some of the cultivated flowers within this popular genus include:

Pinks and carnations have long been a cottage garden favorite, and are highly popular for use in rockeries. Thanks to their outstanding longevity when cut, and their gorgeous fragrance, they also make an outstanding cut flower for floral arrangements – and carnations are still the flower of choice for boutonnieres.

Dianthus pinks with many buds and green foliage in dark brown soil.
Pinks feature a zigzag petal edge. Photo by Lorna Kring.

With their many shades ranging from white to pink to red, it’s easy to see why D. plumarius picked up the moniker “pinks.”

As a side note, the verb “to pink” was popularized in the fifteenth century, and means “to finish an edge with a scalloped, notched, or other ornamental pattern.” As if they were trimmed with pinking shears, D. plumaris exhibits delicately notched petals, in addition to a rosy hue.

How to Grow Dianthus Flowers

Hardiness varies between the species, ranging from Zones 3-9, but all are easily grown in the home garden.

If you’re not sure yours will survive the winter in your area, be sure to take some cuttings or start seedlings to overwinter until the next spring. (See Propagation notes below.)

Carnations grow to a height of 24 inches, sweet williams have an upright habit of up to 18 inches, and old-fashioned pinks form mounds that can reach 6-10 inches. Alpine pinks are the smallest, forming mats only 4-6 inches high.

Blooming Alpine pink dianthus ground cover growing at the top of a rock wall.
Alpine pink Dianthus is perfect for rock gardens.

The short, mound-forming pinks make a striking accent at the front of borders, rockeries, and window boxes. Taller sweet williams and carnations can be placed further back in garden beds for an attractive second layer of color.

All like a full sun location where they receive at least 6 hours of sunlight each day, and need well-drained soil. Adequate air circulation is also important.

Before planting, provide them with a rich soil that has 2-4 inches of well-rotted compost worked in to a depth of 12 inches, and reapply a top dressing of compost in spring.

Pinks growing in the garden, with green foliage and buds.
Mound-forming pinks. Photo by Lorna Kring.

Water new plants weekly. They can be fertilized every 4-6 weeks with an all-purpose liquid fertilizer such as 20-10-20 during the growing season, or apply a slow-release pellet-form fertilizer in the spring.

Pinch or snip off dead flowers to prevent seed formation and encourage additional blooming. At the end of the growing season, cut flower stems back to the ground.

For winter protection, add a 4-inch layer of dry mulch after the first hard frost, and remove it in spring once new growth begins.

Dianthus Plant Propagation

Dianthus can be propagated from seeds started indoors, directly sown into the garden, or grown from stem cuttings.

To plant from seed, begin indoors 2-8 weeks prior to the last frost for your area. Plant in a light, loamy soil mix, sprinkling seeds over the top, and then covering with a light layer of soil.

Cover the container with a cloche or plastic bag to keep the soil moist and warm. Once seedlings have 2-3 true leaves, move into their own pots. Transplant outdoors once they’re 4-5 inches high.

To direct sow outdoors, plant seeds to a depth of 1/8 inch once all danger of frost has passed. Keep the soil moist, and once they have 2-3 leaves, thin to 8-12 inches apart.

To start from stem cuttings, cut away several non-flowering stems from the parent plant just below a leaf joint.

Pink and white dianthus flower with a black center and petals with serrated edges, on a green background of foliage in shallow focus.

Trim away the lower leaves, leaving 4-5 sets of leaves at the top of the stem. Dip the base into hormone rooting powder, and pot up around the perimeter of a container filled with a light potting soil.

Water, then place in a plastic bag, securing the top with a twist tie. Set in a sheltered spot in the garden that receives morning sunlight, but out of hot afternoon sun.

Stem cuttings should root in about 4-5 weeks. Remove the soil ball and gently separate the cuttings, then pot up into individual containers.

Overwinter in a sheltered spot that is protected from frost and freezing temperatures. Plant out in spring once the soil warms up.

Managing Pests and Disease

New cultivars are bred for disease resistance, and are mostly problem-free.

They don’t like wet feet or damp, humid conditions. Cater to these needs, and they will be well prepared to combat attack.

A white Aporia crataegi butterfly pollinates a pink and white Dianthus barbatus flower, with a green background in shallow focus.
An Aporia crataegi butterfly pollinates a D. barbatus flower.

Aphids sometimes feed on the stems and may be easily controlled with a sharp spray of water from a hose, or with ladybugs, which serve as a natural predator.

Carnation flies sometimes lay their eggs on the foliage of carnations, burrowing into the leaves and creating pale “tunnels.” Companion planting with garlic or spraying with a garlic tea will eliminate flies and their larvae.

Clusters of white sweet william flowers with red centers and green leaves.

Rust can be prevented by providing adequate ventilation. Remove and dispose of any leaves infected with rusty or brownish marks on the leaves, or treat with an application of copper oxychloride. Infected plant matter should be thrown in the garbage, not added to the compost pile.

Powdery mildew forms on leaves in warm, humid conditions. Provide proper ventilation and destroy any affected plants, or treat with a benomyl fungicide.

Dianthus Species to Select

For long-stemmed carnations, ‘Cancan Scarlet’ is a good choice for the garden.

Three 'Cancan Scarlet' red carnations with mottled light green and white background in shallow focus.

100 D. Caryophyllus ‘Cancan Scarlet’ Seeds

Hardy, with a bold fragrance, seeds can be purchased online at True Leaf Market.

Magenta, pink, and white 'Telstar' Dianthus flowers.

‘Telstar’ Dianthus Seeds, in Packages of 100 or 500

True Leaf Market also carries a selection hybrid Dianthus seeds, a cross between D. chinensis (China pink) and D. barbatus – try the dwarf ‘Telstar’ mixed series for continuous, colorful blooms all summer.

Pale pink 'La France' carnation blossoms, with dark green stems and lighter green buds.

‘La France’ Carnation Seeds, available from Eden Brothers

A large variety of Dianthus seeds are also available from Eden Brothers.

Closeup of a dark purple Dianthus caryophyllus Grenadin 'King of Blacks' carnation flower.

‘King of Blacks’ Carnation Seeds, available from Eden Brothers

Try ‘La France’ carnations (D. caryophyllus ‘Chabaud’) for a classic pink version, or ‘King of Blacks’ (D. caryophyllus ‘Grenadin’) for an incredible deep purple.

A round cluster of 'Pink Beauty' sweet william flowers, with green leaves in the background.

‘Pink Beauty’ Sweet William Seeds, available from Eden Brothers

‘Pink Beauty’ sweet williams are another lovely option, with clusters of vibrant bubblegum-colored, sweet-smelling flowers.

Quick Reference Growing Guide

Plant Type:Herbaceous perennial; a few species are annualFlower / Foliage Color:White, lilac, red, and and pink
Native to:Europe, Asia, northern Africa, North AmericaTolerance:Light frost
Hardiness (USDA Zone):3-9Soil Type:Organically-rich
Season:Late spring to early autumnSoil pH:6 to 7.5
Exposure:Full sunSoil Drainage:Well-draining
Spacing:6-12 inches depending on speciesAttracts:Bees, beneficial insects, birds, butterflies
Planting Depth:Seeds: surface sow 1/8 inch deep; transplants: same depth as containerCompanion Planting:Varies depending on species, height, and use.
Height:4-24 inches depending on speciesUses:Beds, containers, cut flowers, and mass plantings
Spread:4-18 inches depending on speciesOrderCaryophyllales
Growth Rate:FastFamily:Caryophyllaceae
Water Needs:ModerateGenus:Dianthus
Maintenance:ModerateSpecies:D. alpinus
D. caryophyllus
D. gratianopolitanus
D. chinensis
D. armeria
D. plumarius
D. superbus
D. barbatus
Common Pests:Aphids, carnation fliesCommon Disease:Rust, powdery mildew

In the Pink

Colorful, fragrant, and easy to grow, Dianthus cultivars make a delightful addition to the garden or containers.

Give them lots of sunlight, good drainage, and plenty of fresh air for blooms and fragrance all summer.

Pink carnations with thin green foliage, growing in the garden.
Fragrant and pretty, for continuous blooms all summer long. Photo by Lorna Kring.

Try a mix of pinks and sweet williams for borders and rockeries, and add some carnations to cut and bring indoors for floral arrangements.

And be sure to check out some of our other Dianthus growing guides such as:

Photo of author


A writer, artist, and entrepreneur, Lorna is also a long-time gardener who got hooked on organic and natural gardening methods at an early age. These days, her vegetable garden is smaller to make room for decorative landscapes filled with color, fragrance, art, and hidden treasures. Cultivating and designing the ideal garden spot is one of her favorite activities – especially for gathering with family and friends for good times and good food (straight from the garden, of course)!

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phung (@guest_4159)
5 years ago

This is an extremely beautiful flower. I really like this flower but don’t know how to take care of it to make beautiful flowers like you.

GLORIA LITTLE (@guest_4284)
5 years ago

hi there- i just bought-Rocking Red Sweet William& a Jolt Pink Dianthus-do both come back every year-

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu(@allison-sidhu)
5 years ago

Great picks, Gloria. Both of these should return year after year as perennials, as long as you are located in USDA Hardiness Zone 5 and up. The ‘Jolt Pink’ offer excellent drought resistance as well.

AnnaG (@guest_4547)
5 years ago

I bought a couple of pots of these and have an issue..ugh. they look beautiful until the blooms die then I really don’t know what to do and they then just look awful…do I pinch dead blooms? To Ron stems to a certain spot? Fertilize? Thanks much a Anna

LeVaun (Vaunie) Graulty
LeVaun (Vaunie) Graulty (@guest_9075)
3 years ago

The mat of dianthus is so large now and flowers are faded. Should I cut it back? Will it flower again?

JaneM (@guest_9119)
3 years ago

Do you have any suggestions on why a ‘pink’ may fail to flower at all, whilst the one growing right next to it is happily flowering away, as are others in the garden? It is an unknown variant but both are a low clump forming type that have been in the garden for many years. The plant is extremely healthy looking but has refused to flower for a few years now.

Jane (@guest_9345)
Reply to  Lorna Kring
3 years ago

Many thanks for the suggestions Lorna. I shall certainly give them a try. The plant looks lovely but with no buds at all so dividing/cuttings would be the best bet.

Kim (@guest_12208)
3 years ago

I just purchased a Barbarini Red Dianthus. One site said it is a biannual and another site said it is an annual. I thought I was purchasing a perennial. Can you help?

EC (@guest_12299)
3 years ago

How do I separate dianthus to plant it as a second plant

Pamela Bowe
Pamela Bowe (@guest_12990)
3 years ago

My plant is looking sick. The leaves are turning a pale tan yellowish color with some brown. Any idea what is causing this? Still has some blooms on it.

Jackie (@guest_17811)
2 years ago

Can they be a border plant?

Kelly (@guest_28992)
1 year ago

Hey so I bought a house and it’s got a variety of pink dianthus that is a double flower. It comes back every year. I haven’t separated it or done alot due to fear of killing them. I have a big mound of them with brown woody stems on the center after not doing much other than trimming them at the end of the year. Is there something I should do to help with this? I keep reading to leave the woody part alone but after several years I am at a loss of what I should do to help… Read more »