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Shakespeare's Favourite Flowers: The Carnation

Discover the history of one of the most durable and delightful flowers, the carnation.

Mareike Doleschal
Pink carnations (Dianthus 'Doris') in the Shakespeare borders, Birthplace garden

In Winter’s Tale, a horticultural debate takes place between the characters Perdita and Polixenes. Perdita, who lives as a shepherdess and is a hostess at a sheep-shearing, talks to Polixenes about flowers:

“...the fairest flowers o’th' season

Are our carnations and streaked gillyvors,

Which some call nature’s bastards.”

Winters Tale, Act 4 Scene 4

Perdita rejects carnations, also called gillyflowers because they are hybrids. Human intervention, she believes, is the cause of their creation and not nature. Polixenes, however, disagrees:

“Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,

And do not call them bastards.”

Winters Tale, Act 4 Scene 4

The carnation is one of the oldest cultivated flowers and has been known since Greek and Roman times. According to some legends, the Greek botanist Theophrastus gave the flower its scientific name: dianthus, a combination of the Greek words dios, which means divine and anthos, the word for flower. Others believe the flower got its name from the word coronation since Greeks used the flower for creating ceremonial crowns. The name might also derive from the Latin word carnis, which translates as flesh since the early carnations were mainly pink.

Another legend describes how carnations bloomed when the tears of the Virgin Mary fell onto earth while weeping for her son on his way to Calvary. The carnation has gained much meaning over the centuries; one of them, the expression of motherly love, probably originated in this legend. Not surprisingly, in 1907, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia chose the flower, a pink carnation, to represent Mother’s Day.

Carnations in Gerard's Herbal

In Tudor England, herbalist Gerard lists the many names by which carnations are known, including the name sops-in-wine, a name the flower got from the Tudor culinary use flavouring wine and beer with carnations. Gerard is impressed by the great variety of the species of carnations: “How infinite they are… every year every climate and country bringeth forth new sorts.” The medicinal uses of the flower are equally impressive and go back 2000 years. Gerard recommends conserving the flower to make sugar and cordial, which benefits the heart. It also works against fevers and drives out poison: “It prevaileth against hot pestilential fevers, expelleth the poison and furie of the disease, and greatly comforteth the sicke.”

In the Victorian age, the popularity of the carnation reached its peak, although it never became as popular as the violet. Still, it was one of the Victorians’ favourite flowers. Although it wasn’t number one, Victorians developed an elaborate symbolism relating to carnations, which became known as floriography, the language of flowers. One of the persons responsible for creating this “secret” language of flowers is Lady Mary Montagu, a poet and aristocrat; who married the British Ambassador to Turkey. In her letters, she describes a Turkish custom called “selam”, a floral flower language that harem women used for communication. Flower dictionaries in French and English soon followed, and no Victorian household was complete without it and became a helpful tool for assembling and decoding floral messages.

The meaning of the carnation depended on its colour and whether it was a solid-coloured or striped flower. Apart from the yellow carnation, solid-coloured carnations carried positive messages, whereas striped carnations had more ambiguous connotations.

A red carnation symbolised deep admiration and luck.

White carnations stood for innocence, pure and motherly love, and as mentioned above, came to symbolise mother’s day.

Purple carnations symbolised capriciousness.

Pink carnations symbolised gratitude and fascination.

Yellow carnations symbolised rejection. To receive a bouquet of yellow carnations in Victorian times could be read as a definite no.

Striped carnations also meant no but expressed a gentler no than its yellow counterpart. If paired with a solid carnation, the giver of the bouquet would express regret at having to say no.

Although the green carnation wasn’t assigned an official colour symbolism as the other carnations, it was heavy with meaning. Oscar Wilde asked his friends to wear green carnations, and the green variety of the flower became seen as the symbol for gay men in 19th-century Europe.

Carnations in Giraud's book The Flowers of Shakespeare

I am sure Victorian botanical artist Jane Elizabeth Giraud was fluent in flower speak. In her book The Flowers of Shakespeare (1845), she illustrated Perdita’s floral lines with a watercolour painting of two solid-coloured carnations: a white and a red carnation; perhaps the red one symbolises the love between Perdita and Florizel?

At the beginning of the 20th century, carnations had grown out of popularity, which is probably why Walter Crane was less concerned with representing carnations than with the female figure in his illustration of Perdita’s floral bouquet. Without the quote, one could mistake his artwork for a costume design. However, the characteristics of this illustrious flower are still evident in his illustration: the jagged edges and its pinkish hue.

Carnations have a long flowering period, starting in late spring, giving us ample time to admire this durable and delightful flower.

Carnations in Walter Crane's Flowers from Shakespeare's Garden (1909)

With thanks to SBT gardener Bertie Smith

[All websites accessed on 2nd of May 2021]

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