Heaven Scent Flower

I trace the origin of my present obsession with growing carnations – big, fat, fragrant carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) – to the movie, Jean de Florette, that I saw back in 1986. Not that I aspire to labor under the weight of hauling water long distances to care for my plants, as did Ugolin. And not that I’m hoping to get good money selling the cut flowers at a local market.

Actually, my only memories of the film are of the charming countryside of Provence, of Ugolin crouching over the plants and lavishing them with care, and of the pretty pink flowers. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Ugolin’s carnations even got as far as the flowering stage. Anyway, in my mind’s eye I see those pink blossoms and smell their spicy perfume.
Carnation, fragrant and pretty
With good soil and ample water, my carnations have an easier time of it that did Ugolin’s. Too easy, perhaps. Carnations don’t need or like overly rich or wet soil. When it came time to plant out my seedlings, I recalled those scenes in Jean de Florette. The ledge of soil held up by a stone retaining wall along the south side of my house provide the good soil drainage and sunlight that suits carnations. Lavender, another Mediterranean plant growing on a wall nearby, will help make the carnations feel right at home.

  The biggest threat to my carnations is winter cold and wetness. And even then, these carnations, although technically perennials, are typically short-live perennials that peter out after a couple of years. Luckily, they are easy to grow from seed or root from cuttings.

Like Ugolin, I’ll soon be carefully nurturing some new seedlings. Whether planting, picking, taking cuttings, or preparing them for winter, I’ll also be hunched over my carnations and lavishing them with care, in the months ahead. It’s worth it, for the pastel flowers, and especially for the flowers’ heavenly scent.

And Some Things for the Other Senses

What’s the attraction of southern Europe? The climate there is so different from here in the Wallkill River valley, yet I am attracted to and keep trying to grow Mediterranean plants such as carnations, figs, pomegranates, lavender, black mulberry, and rosemary. All these plants thrive in dry summers and cool, not frigid, winters; minus 20°F is not an uncommon low winter temperature here.

Large cardoon plant

Cardoon, last year

Add to the roster here artichoke and cardoon, two more Mediterranean plants that I set out last spring, for the artichoke, the spring before for the cardoon. (The very mild temperatures of the previous winter let the cardoons survive their first winter outdoors.) That was after sowing each plant in later summer and having it winter in the very cool temperatures of my greenhouse, which provided the vernalization the plants need to flower their first season outdoors.

Both cardoon and artichoke grow as a whorl of spiny leaves from the center of which rises a main flower stalk with smaller flower stalks branching off lower down. Like carnations, they are short-lived perennials. Like carnations, they are easily propagated, in this case by seed or by offshoots that grow at the base of the plant

Cardoon in bud

Cardoon in bud

Like carnations, the biggest threat to artichokes and cardoons around here is winter wetness and, especially, cold. Winter cold will assuredly kill them unless they are protected in some way. To that end, late last fall, I cut down the plants and covered each with a large, inverted flowerpot in which and on which piled leaves for insulation. 

Cardoon  & artichoke protected for winter

Cardoon & artichoke protected for winter

During the warm spell a week or so ago, I pulled back the leaves and uncovered the plants. Cardoon leaves had sprouted more than a foot high within their winter home! Without light, the leafy stalks were ghostly white.


Cardoon, after winter

Cardoon, after winter

That’s okay; cardoon is sometimes purposely blanched to make its flavor more mild. A few days of light will green them up. That’s okay too; I’m growing cardoon for its bold visual presence — last year the plants leaves formed a 3-foot-high, blue-green, mound of spiny leaves up the center of which rose flower stalks at the top of which opened blue flowers resembling enormous thistles.

Cardoon flower

Cardoon flower

As for the artichokes: Not a sign of life. Perhaps winter cold or moisture did them in. Perhaps mice lunched on the roots. Perhaps there’s life beneath the ground, still to awaken. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.


 Death shows Life

   It was with red rose in hand — a long-stemmed red rose — that Deb returned from a recent bridal shower. The rose was a party favor, the flower a welcome sight in the dead of winter. It found a home in a vase of water on the kitchen table.
    After a week, the rose was still sitting on the kitchen table, its bloom looking as perky as the day it had arrived. After two weeks, still no change.
    Okay, I’m sure that the vase was clean, the water fresh and initially warm (for quicker absorption into the stem), and that the base of the stem was freshly cut at a 45 degree angle just before immersion. All that, and the cool room, would make the blossom last longer. But that long?

Commercial rose, after 2 weeks

Commercial rose, after 2 weeks

    No special potions were added to the water. Like sugar, to feed the leafless stem and flower. Or an acidifier to make the water’s acidity more near that of the cell sap, stabilizing the flower’s color. Or an inhibitor to prevent microbes from running amuck. Such potions can be purchased or made at home by mixing: 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of plain household bleach, 2 teaspoons of lemon or lime juice and a quart of lukewarm water; or mixing 2 parts water to 1 part tonic water (or non-diet lemon lime soda).
    The problem was that the blossom was eerily too alive after a couple weeks. Without roots, sunshine, or leaves, the flower should have started dropping petals and looking generally forlorn. It didn’t, at least not quickly enough to exude that there was a life force within.
    Contrast this behavior with that of the carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) that blossom sporadically in my greenhouse through winter.  I cut the fragrant, pink blossoms, put them in a vase of water, and within a week they’re spent.
    I’ve gained appreciation for the transience of cut blossoms. Their timely decline and death declare their aliveness.

Blame it on (a) Gas

    Comparing roses and carnations may be like comparing apples and oranges.
    Ethylene, a simple gas that’s also a potent plant hormone, comes into play here for its role in plant senescence, including that of cut flowers. Combustion, whether from a cigarette, an automobile engine, or a candle, produces some ethylene, as do plants themselves, especially when they are wounded or in their final throes of aging.
 Carnation, fragrant and pretty   Carnations are among flowers, along with baby’s-breath, lilies, snapdragons, and most orchids, whose ethylene production ramps up as senescence begins. These flowers also are very sensitive to the effects of ethylene, which speeds aging, which generates more ethylene, which further speeds aging, which . . .
    Roses, in contrast, are less sensitive to ethylene. (And ethylene plays no role in the decline of daisies, daffodils, and irises.) Also, as a commercial product, the long-stemmed, red rose that sat on my kitchen table could have been pre-treated with silver thiosulfate or aminoethoxyvinylglycine, both ethylene inhibitors.
    No matter. I don’t require a whole lot of carnation blossoms, and new ones appear at a rate sufficient to replace spent ones, or, if slower, to increase appreciation for each new one.

In the Greenhouse, Out with the Old, In with the New

    All winter, the greenhouse beds have been vibrant green with lettuce, arugula, celery, parsley, mâche, chard, kale, and claytonia. Just lately, the greenery has lost some of its vibrance.Lettuce going to seed
    Planted in early fall, these greens grew to size — as hoped — to provide good eating through winter. Over the past few weeks, as days grew short and dim, and temperatures cooled, the greenery — as expected — mostly just sat still. In anticipation, I had grown them to size before the onset of winter. A bigger greenhouse would allow for a little something to be harvested from a lot of little, slow growing plants, enough for the daily fare. But the greenhouse is what it is.
    And some of the lettuce plants, though not very big or old, are going to seed. It seems that lettuce transplants, rather than plants from seeds planted right in the ground, are more prone to this bolting.
    Time for some fresh young growth: I pulled out some old and bolting plants, and sowed fresh lettuce, spinach, and arugula seeds. Growth will be slow for now; older plants should supply sufficient harvest until young’uns are ready for picking.