Wild Relatives of the Garden Carnation and Pinks

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

Gardens and in particular cottage gardens play host to this admirable family of plants. Carnations and the pinks of the Genus Dianthus, are favoured for their colours and beautiful scents. They make useful cut flowers and are sold as such in florists.There can be few church yards or cemeteries that have no representation of this family adorning the the resting places of loved ones.They all belong to the family Caryophyllaceae.

Sweet William is an example of this family loved by gardeners. Photograph by D.A.L.
Sweet William is an example of this family loved by gardeners. Photograph by D.A.L.
This tall type of perennial pink finds favour in cottage gardens. Photograph by D.A.L.
This tall type of perennial pink finds favour in cottage gardens. Photograph by D.A.L.

Yet, they also have a diverse range of wild relatives that have many interesting qualities.They may lack the regal blooms of their cultivated counterparts but they tend to make up for this with their historical uses and their delicate flowers, that spring up in the most surprising places in the countryside and some dwell in urban localities..

The first one under investigation is one of the more conspicuous white flowered varieties which occurs with the bluebell in spring. The Greater stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, sends forth its white star like petals which make a bold emphatic statement.

The much smaller flowers of the lesser stitchwort are found much later in the year from JUne onwards. Photograph by D.A.L.
The much smaller flowers of the lesser stitchwort are found much later in the year from JUne onwards. Photograph by D.A.L.
The conspicuous flowers of the greater stitchwort with their star like petals.Photograph courtesy of Grote Muur
The conspicuous flowers of the greater stitchwort with their star like petals.Photograph courtesy of Grote Muur

The five petals are deeply notched and the yellow stamens enhance their overall beauty. One of its country titles for this species is "poppers" which allude to the seed capsules that explode with a loud pop dispersing the seeds far and wide. 

The flowers are 1.8-3cm wide and are borne in loose clusters , however, they are borne singly. The sepals are shorter than the petals. The unstalked foliage is linear and grass-like arranged in pairs along weak stems that rely on other vegetation to remain elevated. The rootstock is perennial. The flowers may found growing in grassy places such as woodland rides, shady field margins,hedgerows and roadside verges, during April and May. The foliage lasts for many weeks after the flowers have withered.

The plant gets its common name from the fact it was once used medicinally to alleviate the pain in the side commonly referred to as the stitch. Its smaller relative the lesser stitchwort is found later in the year from June onwards in more sunnier aspects. Stellaria the Genus name means little star alluding to the flower formation.

Another member of the genus is the common chickweed Stellaria media,also, as one would expect, has small star like flowers, this is more observable when seen from above. At first glance these small white flowers appear to have ten petals, however, the more observant will see that the five petals are deeply divided, giving the illusion of ten. The green sepals which support the petals from beneath are ever so slightly longer than the petals. In common with the stitchworts they have sprawling stems as a rule but some do manage to stand more erect than others.

The foliage is small and oval with a pointed tip with short stalks while those higher along the stem are stalkless. Should one be inclined to look closer at the stem with the aid of a magnifying glass {hand lens}  it will be revealed that on one side of the stem there is a line of hairs. When it reaches the point where the leaves grow the line ceases but continues on the opposite side of the stem after that point. This line of hairs continues until once again it meets the leaf joints, then they continue on the original side of the stem. The process continues in this manner until the end of the stem.

The much divided petals of the chickweed are clearly shown in this marvelous photograph by Kaldari.
The much divided petals of the chickweed are clearly shown in this marvelous photograph by Kaldari.

I remember as a young boy seeking out this plant with my grandfather, the seeds and foliage were fed to the canaries in his charge at that time. They were regarded as a tonic for cage birds and poultry, both of which ate them with relish. A green ointment was manufactured from the foliage which was applied to chillblains a common affliction in days gone by. The foliage can be eaten in salads and also added to soups. Unless there is a prolonged frost this charming little plant flowers throughout the year.

As a final representation of these white flowered varieties  which also include the sand spurrey, we must look in the grassland of meadows where they delight to grow, but it may be encountered in such localities as sandy places and on shingle banks. The white flowers of this species are 6-10mm wide and like those of the chickweed they have petals which are deeply divided. The sepals are as long as the petals.

The plant takes its common name name from the shape of the foliage which indeed resembles the shape of a mouse's ear. They are covered with fine silky hairs which resemble in texture the fur of a mouse. The leaves are borne opposite each other and have no stalks.

The common mouse ear. Photograph by D.A.L.
The common mouse ear. Photograph by D.A.L.

These plant produces its flowers from April onwards and they may be encountered when more timid plants keep their flowers tucked away in their buds during the cold spells of early spring.

Now we move on to the "pink" flowered wild relatives of the garden pinks.The red campion Silene dioica  which is a very common species of shady places in field margins, woodland and hedgerow. They are often found  in shady aspects on waste land, in ditches and rocky slopes.When on early spring forays I seek out the tufts of oblong, hairy foliage, which are easily recognised along woodland pathways among the surrounding dank herbage. In my opinion this heralds the start of spring proper. The stem foliage is unstalked

Red  campion thrives in shady places.Photograph by D.A.L.
Red campion thrives in shady places.Photograph by D.A.L.

From May onwards the plant sends forth a profusion of red or bright pink flowers and they continue to flower until August or September. The fruit capsule is a swollen bladder like structure with ten turned back teeth. The five petals are notched.

The species name of dioica means of two houses and refers to individual plants producing just one type of flower, ie,  all male or all female. Thus two plants are required, one of each gender to aid pollination. There is a white flowered species which are also relatively common S,alba.

We must seek out damp meadows fens, marshes or stream sides to encounter our next pink flowered species. The ragged robin Lychnis flos-culi, n my opinion , is worth seeking out It is a distinctive plant. It is named after its ragged pink petals, which are deeply divided into four narrow lobes. The flowers are 3-4cm in width.  Below the flowers, the observant, will note that there are red striped sepals that are fused together in a manner that forms a tube.

The ragged robin is a pleasing little plant. Photograph by D.A.L.
The ragged robin is a pleasing little plant. Photograph by D.A.L.

The plant may attain the height of 70cm {over two feet} , and produces two kinds of leaves. The basal leaves are linear and almost grass-like {typical of the garden pinks} yet the stem leaves are broader often spoon shaped, they are arranged opposite each other. The plant may be encountered in bloom from May until August. The rootstock is perennial.

A taller plant that delights to grow in more shadier aspects is the pink flowered soapwort, Saponaria officinialis. It has a robust nature reaching the height of 90cm . The foliage is somewhat fleshy and the veins are conspicuous and oval to elliptical in form, arranged in opposite pairs.

The flowers are arranged in tight clusters. Each of the petals broadening towards the tip like the propeller of an aeroplane. Another diagnostic feature is the elongated light green sepal tube often tinged with purple. The petals are unnotched.

The flowers of soap wort.Photograph  courtesy of Teun Spaans
The flowers of soap wort.Photograph courtesy of Teun Spaans

The soapwort acquired its common name from the fact that the leaves were once boiled to form a soapy lather for washing. I can confirm from experience that this liquid soap is as good as commercial products we pay pounds for.

I will conclude this article with the beautiful corn cockle which appears like a pink jewel in the crown of the corn field. The foliage of this plant is also linear with a greyish hue.The flower is composed of five broadly over lapping petals  of a deep pink colour which fades towards the center. the petals form a beautiful saucer like structure. The long linear hairy sepals taper to a fine point and project  beyond the petals like a star.

The flowers are 3.5 cm wide and are borne singly on long slender stalks. It is another species which is in bloom from May until August. This is another example of a once common flower of arable land becoming extremely rare. Once again intensive farming has been singled out for the plants decline. However, they appear in wild flower seed mixes and some times escape into the wider countryside.

The beautiful corn cockle is now becoming rare. Photograph by D.A.L.
The beautiful corn cockle is now becoming rare. Photograph by D.A.L.
Illustration courtesy of Velela
Illustration courtesy of Velela

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Comments 16 comments

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 5 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Thank you every one who have taken the time to leave a comment on Wild Relatives of the Garden Carnation and Pinks. They are appreciated.


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D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Drjb glad you enjoyed it thank so much for your visit.


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Hi, D.A.L. - Your beautiful photo of the corn cockle is a work of art - all it needs is your artistic signature.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Hi Pamela Kinnaird W thank you for visiting and for leaving your appreciated comments.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 6 years ago from Maui and Arizona

Your seeming ease and knowledge around these plants is amazing. Wonderful information and illustrations.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

B, thanks again for your appreciated comments. Best wishes.


Joy56 profile image

Joy56 6 years ago

lovely as ever, the colours on the photos are stunning.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

equealla, thank you so much for your kind and appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

billyaustindillon, thank you billy,also for your appreciated comments and for the compliment.


billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

Beautiful pictures - I am just amazed by your knowledge on gardening. I find myself referring to your hubs now for plant advice!


equealla profile image

equealla 6 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

Wow, you are a walking encyclopedia in the world of flaura. I found the info about dioica very interesting. My favourite flower is a carnation, and I just came to realise I have none in this place I recently bought. Come spring, i know my first priority now.

Thanx for expanding my knowledge one more time. I love the photos!


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

kgnature, thank you, your welcome.

msorenson, thank you too, for visiting and enjoying it.

Darksi,As always I have to thank you for your encouraging comments. Its nice to have you here my friend.

Vibhavari, your welcome and thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

VAMPGYRL420, your kind comments are really appreciated. Best wishes


VAMPGYRL420 profile image

VAMPGYRL420 6 years ago from The Eastern Shore of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, U.S.A.

A beautiful flower and a beautiful Hub :) Thank you, D.A.L. You bring beauty into the lives of everyone who comes across your Hubs :)

Love & Light,

Windy Grace


Vibhavari profile image

Vibhavari 6 years ago from India

Lovely hub with lovely pictures, very refreshing. thank u D.A.L.


Darlene Sabella profile image

Darlene Sabella 6 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

Oh how I look forward to your hubs, my dear dear friend you are the one that looks at the world in the most awesome way, and then you show what you see, thank for sharing your world with thy, I almost wish I could fly to see....rate up lovely


msorensson profile image

msorensson 6 years ago

Wow, thanks!!


kgnature profile image

kgnature 6 years ago from North Carolina

Great Hub! Thanks.

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