Carnations

Confession: Domesticated carnations make me want to puke. Not the wild ones but rather the horrid mutants being sold in bewildering numbers during this week in February. I don't like feeling this way towards a plant. It isn't the plants fault that we turned it into such a monster. So, today I though I would dedicate this space to honoring the wild congener of the domestic carnation.

When we talk about carnations we are referring to cultivars of the genus Dianthus. The most prominent cultivars we see today originated from Dianthus caryophyllus. It is hard to pinpoint the native origin of this species as it has been cultivated throughout Europe and Asia for nearly 2000 years. Regardless, it is thought that the wild carnation is native to a stretch of the Mediterranean region encompassing Greece and Italy.

Wild carnations are more sleek in appearance than their cultivated cousins. They are modest sized plants each producing flowers with five serrated petals that range in color from white to pink. The flowers are protandrous meaning the male parts mature and senesce before the female parts. This helps to reduce inbreeding. Nectaries are located at the base of the flower and it is thought that long tongued bees and lepidotera make up the bulk of the pollinators.

Following pollination, the petals begin to produce ethylene gasses. This causes near complete collapse of the flowers within 24 hours. Why bother wasting energy on expensive floral parts that can now be directed to seed production? Upon maturity, the seed capsule breaks open at the top. Its position at the tip of the stem allows for a combination of ballistic and wind seed dispersal. As the capsule sways back and forth in the breeze, the tiny seeds are launched from the capsule like shrapnel from a catapult.

The multi-petaled mutants we have selectively bred barely function as viable plants anymore. In the wild, carnations are perennial, producing one to six flowers a season and plenty of wind dispersed seeds. Because we value looks and longevity over biology, cultivated carnations will often flower themselves to death in one season. Also, the duplication of petals has made it so that insects cannot reach the interior to get at the pollen or nectar.

Dianthus caryophyllus isn't alone in this genus. Over 300 species of Dianthus have been described each with their own ecology and distribution. They range in appearance from modesty creeping herbs to woody shrub-like plants. Many of these have been utilized by plant breeders to create new cultivars. Unfortunately this is yet another genus of plants whose cultivars get all the attention.

Photo Credit: Zeynel Cebeci - Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:
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