Dianthus: A New Take

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Dianthus ‘Coral Reef’

This year’s California Spring Trials highlighted dianthus as an emerging shining star, and for good reason. Breeders have been working hard to ensure the genetics for a new generation of dianthus exceed home gardeners’ expectations. This new generation is versatile, too, promising long-lasting, floriferous performance in the garden as well as clean-looking, scented pot plants for gifts and holidays.

Despite the focus on home gardeners, breeders haven’t forgotten about growers. The genetics also have benefits for growers, including easily programmable crops that will flower during the early season sales window and cool-weather hardiness that means fewer input costs.

“The classic vegetative pot dianthus tends to be old fashioned; they are slow, not hardy enough and bad performers in the garden,” says Danziger Senior Breeder Gideon Scovel. “For many years there were no really new breeding initiatives to upgrade dianthus as a product.”

That’s changed as breeders have rediscovered the profit potential early-flowering perennial dianthus cultivars hold for growers and retailers alike.

“I think there are two macro trends where growers are looking for something to put into the store for early turns and they’re looking for energy awareness,” says Jim Kennedy, sales manager at Ball Horticultural Co. Selecta North America, which is distributed through Ball, introduced the EverLast dianthus at Spring Trials this year – a series that is hardy to USDA Zone 4. It also features double blooms and a longer flowering time than classic dianthus genetics.

“A lot of dianthus have a double flower, or a carnation-type bloom that is a
familiar flower,” Kennedy says. “More and more, the consumer walking through retail doesn’t have a background in horticulture and is looking for something familiar that’s going to do well for them.”

Scent Sells Plants

For Whetman Pinks, represented by PlantHaven International, dianthus is synonymous with scent, which can be just as important a factor in a consumer’s purchase as appearance. And it’s a key part of this crop that – in the past – has been all but discarded in favor of longer blooming times and shelf life.

“With dianthus Whetman’s focus has always been to have the most scented selections they possibly can,” says Robert Bett, director of horticulture and marketing at PlantHaven International. Whetman has been breeding dianthus for more than 75 years, and several plants have won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. “There’s now a wealth of variety with fragrant blooms; it gives the customer everything they want – scent with beautiful flower colors, too.”

That spicy fragrance also plays an important part in growing and selling dianthus varieties for holiday gifts and decorations. “They have that nice, aromatic scent that ties in with holidays. It’s nostalgia; that scent becomes a sensory experience,” Bett says. “Who doesn’t like to have something floral around the house for the holidays?”

PlantHaven is representing two new introductions from Whetman Pinks this year: Rosebud and Coral Reef. Coral Reef is a new addition to the Scent First Pot line of potted dianthus with eye-catching coral double blooms, while Rosebud is new to the Promotional Line and features a tight rose flower form.

The Weather-Tolerant Early Bloomer

Perennial forms of dianthus, while a longer crop than annuals, can add a new dimension for early spring and fall and can be grown with fewer energy inputs than traditional greenhouse crops. Ball’s Kennedy says the crop is manageable for greenhouse growers and is pretty straightforward without a lot of “bells and whistles.” For a gallon pot product, growers would plant in late summer for an early spring finish. In that regard, it’s not a fast crop. However, Ball does offer bulked up liners to make the turnaround quicker for those looking for a faster route.

“Earliness to flower and a very uniform series from color to color, so the growers don’t have to treat one color different from another, are important,” says Greg Gabrels, key account manager at Sakata, which introduced a white dianthus to its Diamond series this spring. “They’re pretty versatile; they can stand alone. You can plant a small patio container if you like, or you can plant it in the ground. It’s just a great shoulder season bedding plant.”

Susan Martin, director of marketing communications at Walters Gardens, also sees the benefits to early flowering for growers and retailers alike. However, along with cold tolerance, Walter’s, in conjunction with Proven Winners, is also looking for plants that love summer.

“In addition to plants with beautiful flowers and a great habit, we are looking for varieties that exhibit greater heat and humidity tolerance. So many of us live in climates with terribly hot summers and need plants that can take the heat, literally,” she says. “Members of the Proven Winners Fruit Punch dianthus series were bred to withstand such conditions.”

All About Those Flowers

With all this talk of early blooming, long-blooming, scented and other benefits, we haven’t mentioned what consumers love the most – the flowers. From single to semi-double and double blooms, picotee edges, starbursts and, of course, those distinctive notched petals that looked like they’ve been cut with pinking shears, dianthus flowers pack a serious punch on the retail bench.

It’s the flowering time and look that the folks at Danziger have been focusing on, along with hardiness and scent. They have two series of dianthus with new colors being introduced at Spring Trials this year: Lady D, which features large double flowers that bloom intensely, and Delilah, which is focused on hardiness to low and high temperatures, scent, semi-double flowers and perpetual flowering in the garden.

“There aren’t an infinite number of plants in nature, therefore breeders who are successful in upgrading traditional products, like dianthus, will continue to satisfy the consumer,” Scovel says. “At Danziger we continue to invest all resources in molding dianthus into something more modern and more useful in the garden. Much to our satisfaction we also continue to uncover hidden potential in this interesting and genetically flexible genus.”

Danziger likely won’t be alone when it comes to investing in future dianthus breeding. Growers will continue to have more choices as new introductions come through the pipeline, shortening crop time and enhancing garden performance.

Jennifer Polanz is a freelance writer with Grasshopper Freelance. She can be eMailed at jepolanz@gmail.com.

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