What is a Carnation?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Carnations are hardy flowers native to the Mediterranean which have been cultivated for over two thousand years. There are numerous carnation cultivars in regular production all over the world, from diminutive spray carnations used in bouquets to large single flowers worn in the buttonhole. The carnation is one of the most widely recognized flowers in the world. Many people associate carnations with love and affection, and they may be exchanged on holidays dedicated to these sentiments. Carnations may be commonly used as filler in bouquets, but they really are rather lovely flowers, even if they are common.

People have been growing carnations in the Mediterranean since Roman times, and a number of meanings have been associated with the carnation or “Jove's Flower” over time. These flowers have five petals, and they may have single or double blooms which vary in color from white to pink. Special cultivars in shades like red, orange, and dark purple have also been produced, along with variegated blooms. The petals typically have ragged edges, and carnations have a distinctive slightly spicy smell which some people find very pleasant.

Carnations like to be in full sun, with well-drained neutral to alkaline soil. They appreciate regular fertilization during the growing season, and they should be routinely deadheaded to promote the production of more flowers. In addition to snipping away spent blooms, gardeners should also trim away dead foliage. The plants can be propagated from seeds, starts, or suckers which branch off from mature plants. A carnation plant will die off in the winter in cool climates, and it should be mulched to protect the roots from damage.

Gardeners in USDA zones three through nine can successfully grow carnations. In especially warm climates, it may be beneficial to provide some afternoon shade to prevent damage to the plants, and carnations should also be well watered during periods of dryness. They can be grown as borders, in clusters of ornamental plants, and in almost any other way a gardener might desire, and they make excellent, long-lasting cut flowers. White carnations can be dyed with the use of colored water to create an array of hues.

A number of close relatives to the carnation are grown in the garden, including Sweet William, a fellow member of the Dianthus genus. These plants can be paired with carnations for more visual interest. Carnations also go well with peonies and dahlias, and they take readily to shaping and pruning.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


You know, I love to garden, but I have never thought of carnations as a growing kind of flower.

That might sound odd, but I suppose there are some flowers that I never think of actually growing. I only think of them in terms of buying a bouquet at the grocery store for a quick splash of color at the dinner table.

Carnations definitely fall into that category. However, now that I’ve taken a look at this article, and a few of the other comments, I just might give them a whirl!

It’s always exciting to find a new plant or flower or shrub to nurture and watch grow right in your own yard. However, it’s just as exciting to look at one that isn’t new but that is simply being reborn in your mind.


You know, I have no real idea where the concept came from, but I always associate carnations with funerals.

Perhaps this comes from losing several close loved ones at an early age, and seeing all of the funeral arrangements. I suppose carnations are often used as filler flowers because they are less expensive than many other colorful flowers.

I am not the only person in my family who feels this way either – I have two different sisters that also have the same ideal. Anytime any of us orders and arrangement for anything (even a funeral) we specifically request that no carnations of any kind be used.

Regardless, I find that I just can’t buy these flowers as gifts, or even to bring into my home for a table arrangement. Well, none of them except the tie dyed ones, which are super cool and totally non-funeral.


@chivebasil - As @Mykol mentioned, carnations are not as expensive as roses, which might be one of the reasons why they are so popular as corsages. The fact that they also come in so many colors is probably another factor as to why people tend to choose them so often.

With that in mind though, I must say that I've never seen anyone receiving a bouquet of red carnations on Valentine's Day, even though they are also beautiful, sweet-smelling and cheaper when compared to roses!


The different colors of carnations each hold rather different meanings. Some people do include a mix of them in a bouquet just because they look pretty together, but it's probably a good idea to know what they symbolize too, to avoid any accidental offense!

For example, a yellow carnation typically suggests disappointment or even rejection. A significant other would likely be quite let down to receive these instead of the deep red or white ones that stand for love.


@jonrss - Do you have any tips on growing a carnation garden? I had tried some time ago but they all wilted and died after a while, although I'm not sure if it was due to the soil conditions or the amount of water I gave them. Do you know if they can be grown indoors as well?


Carnations are a beautiful flower that are easy to grow and come in a lot of different colors and varieties. I grow carnations every year, and love to use them in mixed flower bouquets.

They hold up well when used as a cut flower, and bring a pleasing, light scent to the room. I love planting several different colors so I can have a colorful bouquet of just carnations.

A couple of things that make carnations so easy to grow is that they aren't real picky about soil and don't get diseases as easily as a lot of other plants.

My favorite color to plant is the red ones, because they also attract hummingbirds. I get to enjoy the beautiful red blooms and watch the hummingbirds at the same time.


I remember having carnation corsages for prom and high school graduation. I liked wearing the wrist corsages because they were much easier to put on and easier to smell. It was also easy to get carnations that matched the color of dress you were wearing.

Carnations are not as expensive as roses, but I love their scent and they will last quite a while if they are taken care of the right way.

As soon as the event was over that I was wearing a carnation corsage for, I would wrap up the carnation and put it in the refrigerator. Sometimes I would float the flowers in a bowl of water so I could enjoy them for several more days.


My boyfriend has worked with flowers for years as a landscape artist. He knows all the meanings behind them, so whenever he gets me flowers, I look up their significance to know what he is trying to say.

When we first started dating, he sent me a bouquet of light red carnations. I found out that these symbolize admiration, and I loved the gesture.

Seven months later, after we had already told each other, “I love you,” he sent me a bouquet of deep red carnations, symbolizing his deep love for me. Nestled down in the flowers was a box with an engagement ring inside!


My church decorates the sanctuary with pink carnations on both Mother’s Day and Easter Sunday. This is because of the symbolism behind this color of carnation.

Legend holds that pink carnations first appeared in the world where Mary’s teardrops fell as Jesus carried His cross to the place where He would be crucified. The ladies at the church put out the pink carnation bouquets on Good Friday and leave them through Easter. They also scatter them on the aisle leading to the altar.

Because of the same legend, pink carnations symbolize a mother’s love. Our church passes out pink carnations to all the mothers in the congregation on this day.


I teach a kindergarten class, and I used carnations as part of our St. Patrick’s Day celebration. I made a lot of green ones, but I also made all the colors of the rainbow to lead to the pot of gold.

I put the carnations in a vase with water and green food coloring as my afternoon class watched, and I left them there overnight. The stems carried the dye to the white flowers, and they turned green. I also made vases with red, orange, yellow, blue, and violet dye to make the rainbow carnation bouquet.

The students loved seeing how real flowers can change colors. I have no doubt that they will try this experiment on their own white flowers at home.


My friend recently lost her husband to a heart attack. He was only 35 years old, and they were perfect for each other. At his funeral, the pallbearers wore carnations on their shirts.

I know that carnations are supposed to symbolize different things according to their colors. The deep red carnations are meant to show the deepest love, and white ones denote pure love. Both were on the bouquet that rested on top of the casket.

Carnations always were my friend’s favorite flower. She never thought she would be using them for such a sad purpose, I’m sure. Though she will always associate them with deep love, looking at them will probably make her sad.


I have been growing carnation in my backyard for years and I love how easy it is to grow this beautiful flower. I can't claim to be the best gardener. I often end up killing more than I bloom. But I have never managed to screw up the carnations. Every spring we have a nice big planer box filled with milky white carnations. I have started seeing the flowers as a symbol of my best intentions. I may not have gotten much, but I got carnations.


I consider myself something of an amateur flower arranger and I love the way that the smell of carnations pairs with the smell of other flowers in a bouquet. It is really distinct, unlike any other flower I've ever smelled. The slightly spicy smell has always reminded me just a little bit of cumin.

I like to pair the carnation with sweeter smelling flowers to get a dynamic range of scents in one bouquet. If done correctly the smell is as beautiful as the look.


Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't there some kind of tradition of wearing a carnation when you are meeting someone for a blind date? Does anyone know where this came from? I think it is a really nice idea and the carnation has a unique reputation. It is the flower of potential love. Or the symbol that will make strangers become friends.


I wanted to add that I always buy a bouquet of carnations every week when I go to the grocery store because they are really pretty and relatively inexpensive to buy. I prefer the colored carnations because I really don’t like the white ones.

My kids usually have a fundraiser in school involving carnations for Valentine’s Day. It is really cute idea and most of the kids get a flower. I always have one sent on behalf of each of my children for kids in their class because I would hate for one of the kids in the class to feel bad because they did not get one.

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Woman with a flower
      Woman with a flower