The individual flowers are about a half inch across and they get prettier and prettier the closer you look at them. Some have white centers surrounded by a red rings. On some the individual petals appear to have a pattern etched on them in similar but contrastring color like a damask table cloth. There are also double flowered strains where each individual flower looks like a little rose.
Sweet William is another flower often sold in grower bunches at the Farmer’s Market, which is a shame because I think they are shown to much better effect when displayed with other flowers. They are like great character actors, interesting and great fun by themselves but really at their best when interacting with bigger stars.
Like foxgloves and canterbury bells, Sweet William is a true biennial. Seeds planted this year will grow a good sized tuft of leaves but not flower. Next year they will flower in early June, go to seed and die. They are easy to start from seed, even planted directly into the ground. They usually self sow if you don’t cut all the flowers.
There are some really cool Sweet William seed strains. Some of my favorites are:
- Auricula-Eyed – these are ones with the white centers and red rings. Plants from a mixed packet like the one sold by J.L. Hudson Seeds will all be unique with different sized eyes and rings and contrasting colors. I grew a bed full of them a couple years ago and it was fun to look at all the variations and try to decide which was prettiest.
- Newport Pink – is a pale salmon pink. Not peach or melon, but pink with a bit of orange in it.
- Scarlet – all the other red Sweet William are crimsons – they have lots of blue in them. These are scarlet, with no blue and leaning toward orange.
- Nigrescens (sometimes listed as 'Sooty') – A really, really dark maroon red with slightly lighter throats.
- Duplex Mixed – these are the doubles that look like clusters of tiny roses.
- White – perhaps not as useful to home gardeners, but I always like plain white flowers for making two color arrangements - red and white, blue and white, yellow and white etc. These are great for this purpose.
Last year I started some of each of these and I will try to include pictures once they start flowering. Regular dianthus seed like the ones above are inexpensive and usually come in generous packets. The seed stays viable for years.
In addition to all of the regular, biennial Dianthus barbatus, there are also a number of hybrids which have been bred to bloom the same year they are sown. The one I have had the best luck with is the Amazon series which comes in Cherry Neon, Purple Neon and Rose Magic. Neon Cherry and Neon Purple are also sold in a 50-50 mix as Neon Duo. Neon Cherry is not what I would call red - to me it is a deep pink but still very brilliant. Neon Purple is a bright pinkish purple, not a royal purple or a lavender. Neon is a good way to describe both of them because they are really brilliant colors. They are very pretty but not always easy to pair with other colors. Rose Magic blooms with multiple shades of pink in the same flower head. The individual flowers change color from white to pale pink to dark pink – or maybe it is the other way around but all three colors are together at once. Some people think Rose Magic looks a bit washed out and wimpy by itself, but I think they are beautiful fillers for bouquets containing blue, white, crimson and pink.
Amazon dianthus lack the color variety of the non-hybrid varieties and the seed is really expensive (Stokes charges about a 10 cents per seed). Nevertheless, growers, including me, rave about them because they can be succession sown, have strong, thick stems, and will re-bloom on shorter stems if the first stems are cut at the base. By growing both the biennial and the Amazon Sweet Williams I am able to use them from June until the end of September.