Plant Lore: Carnation, The Flower of the Gods


Salmon colored carnation flowers.
Image by instants courtesy iStock.

The botanical term dianthus may not be familiar to many people, but everybody knows the carnation. It's one of the oldest and most well-known flowers in history. The popularity of dianthus as both a cut flower and a garden plant has waxed and waned in recent decades (with a few exceptions) but to the ancient Greeks it held a place of the highest regard.

Pink dianthus flowers growing wild in a meadow.
Image by Marie Demidiuk courtesy iStock.

The genus dianthus covers numerous species and has native flowers in China, Africa, North America, and Europe. The variety native to the Mediterranean, dianthus caryophyllus, inspired its deific nomenclature, which comes from the Greek dios or dias meaning of Zeus — or Zeus combined with anthos the Greek for flower. Legend has it that Zeus became consumed with jealousy when he discovered that Hera had her very own flower: the fragrant, captivating lily. In a fit of rage he threw a lighting bolt out onto the Plain of Thessaly at the base of Mount Olympus where a carnation sprang forth. He claimed it as his own and, henceforth, carnations became synonymous with Zeus and were used to create all kinds of ceremonial crowns.