Dianthus caryophyllus—the ancestor of carnations as we know them—grows wild in the Pyrenees Mountains of France and Spain. Some botanists and historians believe the people of Europe and Asia cultivated the carnation in prehistory, and in the 4th century BCE, the Greek botanist Theophrastus was the first to describe the carnation in detail.
We love carnations for their beautiful blooms, long life spans, and full range of colors. They’re popular, too—the second most commercially grown flower in the world after roses. They often get a bad—but undeserving!—reputation as funereal, unoriginal, and generic. They’re an underdog we absolutely adore in the shop: they last forever, come in nuanced colors (dusty rose! beige!), and offer so much fluff for the price. They’re as diverse in color as roses and much more cost-effective; they’re definitely not just for grocery store bouquets and prom corsages.
How We Use Them
We don’t always love the base and the stem, but tucked in an arrangement, you practically have what a peony gives you in terms of volume, shape, and scent; they’re great grouped (to make something that resembles a giant peony!) and we find variegated varieties in gorgeous mauves, browns, and brights. The mini carnations can be really delicate and playful, too.
Colorado Carnation Lore
In Colorado, where we call home, there’s a fascinating carnation history. I remember seeing a photo wall at one of our wholesalers—in the photo, they were processing the most carnations I’ve ever seen in one place.
One Colorado grower used to produce 440,000 blooms a year. Today, fewer than 280,000 square feet of carnations are grown in Colorado, even though it’s the perfect flower for our climate. They need plenty of sunshine—especially in the winter—and do well with the cooler evenings many parts of Colorado can provide. They did well at altitude, and produced bigger blossoms than other states. This time in history was called the “Carnation Gold Rush” by Denver locals.
By 1974 Colorado was the number-one producer of carnations in the world, with more than 250 growers in the state. Some growers and wholesalers remained in the business for many generations—Wheat Ridge even held a Carnation Festival every August. Denver Wholesale Florists was bought out by fifty growers in 1949, and by 1970, it was the top carnation wholesaler in the country.