Dianthus barbatus

sweet William


Dianthus barbatus

L. 1753

pronounced: dy-AN-thuss bar-BAY-tuss

(Caryophyllaceae — the carnation family)


common name: sweet William

Dianthus has been around since ancient times, being named originally by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c.371–c. 287 BC) – Διος (Dios), of Zeus, chief of the gods, and ανθος (anthos), a flower. The origin of the common name, Sweet William, is obscure. There are many theories, but none has ever been verified. It was referred to as “Sweete Williams” as early as 1596 by the botanist John Gerard. Sweet William was the sailor lover of Black-eyed Susan, referred to in The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by John Gay. Black-eyed Susan featured in many traditional English Ballads dating to much earlier times than that. Sweet William was a favourite name for lovelorn young men, as in the ballad ‘Fair Margaret and Sweet William’.

Dianthus barbatus var. barbatus is native to the mountains of southern Europe from the Pyrenees east to the Carpathians and the Balkans. D. barbatus var. asiaticus is disjunct in north-eastern China, Korea, and south-eastern-most Russia. Both varieties grow up to about 70 cm tall, with green to glaucous blue-green tapered leaves 4 – 10 cm long and 1 – 2 cm broad. The var. asiatica has narrower leaves than var. barbatus, usually not over 1 cm in width. The flowers pictured (of the variety asiaticus) were in a garden in Granite Street, Picnic Bay.

The flowers are produced in a dense cluster of anything up to 30 at the top of the stems, and have a spicy, clove-like scent; each flower is 2 – 3 cm in diameter, and has five petals with serrated edges. These flowers, and others in the Caryophyllaceae family, are sometimes called ‘pinks’. This has nothing to do with their colour, but refers to the fact that the edges of the flowers appear to have been trimmed by pinking shears. In wild plants the petals are red with a white base, but in the garden we find numerous cultivars and hybrids selected for their flower colours, that range from white, pink, red and purple, or with variegated patterns. The plant was introduced to northern Europe in the 16th century, and later to North America and elsewhere. In many places it has become widely naturalized.

The plant is used in borders, rock gardens, and informal country cottage style gardens. Its nectar attracts birds, bees and butterflies, and its flowers are said to be edible. The larvae of the Australian Native Budworm Helicoverpa punctigera feed on it.

Sweet William thrives in loamy, slightly alkaline soil with sun to partial shade. Propagation is by seed, cuttings or division, but seeds of cultivars will not breed true. Also, many of the newer cultivars are no longer fragrant. There are some cultivars that produce double flowers, and several dwarf cultivars that grow only 10 – 20 cm tall.

At the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton on 29th April, 2011, Catherine included Sweet William in her bouquet as a tribute to her bridegroom.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2013
Page last updated 10th December 2018