January 18, 2016

Carnationist Aspirations - Infatuated with Malmaison Carnations

Someone asked me recently if I ever feel as if I am going to run out of things to try growing, and when I thought about it, I somehow felt a little shocked - as if someone could ask " do you ever feel as if you will run out of ideas and never be creative again? Maybe it's the creative in me, the artist who must remain ever vigilant in sourcing  inspirations or influence, but ideas, for me, are never a problem, If anything, they can be a burden. So much to do, so little time!

Most of you already know about my other obsessions with plants, my 30 year relationship with cut flower exhibitions sweet peas (sometimes I think I even started the current trend ten years ago!), my current infatuation with exhibition and Japanese Chrysanthemums, on the deck are Dahlias, but even more tempting to me are carnations. Particularly, the old, cut flower ones, and most recently, the very choice and hard to find 'Malmaison' carnations. I'll add this tag line, since it usually follows many of my posts about old flowers, but here goes - The mid 19th century cut flowers, are perhaps the 'slowest' flowers of all. Localists celebrated what could only be raised underglass, locally. Camellias, violets, roses, chrysanthemums and carnations. Along with the tuberose and lily of the valley, these were the most common cut flower in florist shops, and in conservatories kept on the grand, American estates.

Shipping flowers in the late 19th century only meant 'by rail'. Wooden crates, lined with oiled paper and cotton could carry thousands of flowers, and in fact, millions where shipped this way until air travel became popular around 1940. This old label for a railroad package was offered by the Society of American Florists to use on carnation crates.

The carnations societies in the Eastern US were large and popular. This show in 1910 Detroit shows how massive and well attended some of the exhibitions, were.

The story behind this once - most popular cut flower for Amercian florists to grow, might just be the perfect example of humankind realizing the benefits of a global market. Once, second only to the rose, the carnation was so popular that hundreds of millions of flowers were grown, just in this country alone. As air travel became more efficient, the wooded boxes that wholesale growers once packed and bundled for train travel, evolved to meet the needs of a global market. The light quality needed for Carnations moved the center of carnation culture from New England around the year 1900, to the high mountains of Colorado in the 1970's, where the light quality was far better, to Israel, the Gaza Strip, Columbia and Peru where today, most of our carnation crops comes from.

A list from 1889 showing some of the finest pink varieties, didn't list my 'Duchess of Westminster' carnation. With further research, I discovered it in another book, listed not as a Perpetual carnation, but a type known as a Malmaison.

Only in England, do garden centers and nurseries still sell carnations for the home grower and the few carnation enthusiasts, while in North America, they have become essentially, unavailable anywhere. So started my hunt to discover more about the lost carnations of America, and why we cannot find the anywhere today ( aside from some seed strains of a rather poor, smaller type sold as 'Chaubaud Gants', not worth raising in one wants the gorgeous and impressive long-stemmed varieties with large flowers, once so popular, or if one wants to grow carnations that look overmuch like carnations. What's a gardener to do?

On-line sources for information about old techniques are easy to find, using Google images and Google digital books.

I put an 'all points bulletin' type request out on my social media last fall, tring, pleading, actually, to find some sources for carnations. No luck, but I am certain that some exist still in private estate collections or in some secret greenhouse at places like Longwood. I did find a couple of the lost and rare 'Perpetual's' at Annies Annuals, which I ordered and have planted in the greenhouse, as well as  a terrific discovery of a very old one last week at Logee's Greenhouses, a carnation named 'Duchess of Westminster', which itself, has taken me on a bit of a journey.

As it turns out, this carnation 'Duchess of Westminster' is what is known as a 'Malmaison' type of carnation', or a 'Malmaison Carnation'. Bred in France in 1857, they are very special ( or, at least, they were once considered very special, today, don't expect to walk into a florist shop as ask for a 'Malmaison carnation' not try to find seed or cuttings for them. The Malmaison's are simple on the edge of extinction. Now rare, and more difficult to both find, and to grow, but more about all that later. First, some carnation 101, to bring you up to speed.

19th Century brought many new carnation selections to the market, making the flower the second most popular cut flower in the US and in Europe. Stripes, flakes and Fancies like this one, filled winter greenhouses and made their way to florist shops.

Carnations are old. Raised as a cut or even a garden flower, they date back to Roman times, but most historians agree that things really didn't take off until the early nineteenth century, thanks to glass greenhouses, stoves and heating.

Old books about how to raise carnations still exist, such as this one from the late 1800's

 By the mid 1800's, carnations were becoming extremely popular in the West, with hundreds of named varieties being bred and raised by the British, the French and the Americans, and millions of cut stems being shipped to florists in cities. The French, British and Americans all developed multiple 'perpetual' carnations, which were summer blooming outdoors in warmer, Mediterranean climates, and were best as grown as a winter blooming crop, when grown in North America. Border carnations, pinks and many species of alpine forms became available, but none were as popular and diverse as the perpetuals were.

Perpetual carnations came in at least four types. This picotee form is a favorite.

Like the tall, cut flower sweet peas, also popular in the last 19th century, all carnations were not species, but essentially man-made. This means that varieties were selected, and crosses, only the best were propagated, and many named varieties were created.  Today, many new hybrids are being bred, but what I find interesting, are the old varieties. Saving some of these old varieties is historical preservation, which in many ways, is just as important as saving or preserving the many wild species, which of course, I support as well. So many have already been lost, but some enthusiasts continue to save found selections, either in National Collections, or in their private gardens and greenhouses. The only problem is, few people in the US can collect these carnations, since hardly any varieties at all, can be found. A sad statement for what was once, the planets largest grower and importer of these flowers.

Although the perpetual carnations are top on my list for saving, or even for acquiring as I would welcome any of the new hybrids, there are some types of carnations which are even more desirable, in particular, I have discovered the Malmaison types.

The Malmaison Carnations

Back to my very old discovery from Logee's Greenhouses in Conn. 'a 1906 introduction named 'Duchess of Westminster' which I now know as a true 'Malmaison carnation' and one which I have to admit is not completely new to me - I had tried it before, purchasing it as long ago in the late 1970's or 1980's from the Logee's pit house when Mrs. Logee Martin talked me into buying it. She told me that they used to grow it there, as a cut flower back in the early 20th century, when they would grow cut flowers to ship to the New York Market. I should mention - Logee's doesn't list this plant in their catalogs or on their website, you may need to ask them for it. Many of the old pit house plants, can only be found in their pit house, when they happen to propagate them.

So, I can safely say that over the decades, I have probably killed at least a half dozen of these  'Duchess of Westminster' carnations - but I never really knew what I had. A good example of why any gardener should take the time to research, for I am certain that I am not alone, in sometimes just assuming that "regular 'ol garden soil and a pot' will suffice, or, 'just plant it in the ground, and it will simple grow.". Thanks to Google, the Internet, the library at Tower Hill Botanic Garden and a little spare time, I now can see where I went wrong, but most of all, this research has only inspired me to attempt mastering its culture. Thankfully, I have the greenhouse.

The foliage on the Malmaison carnations is much more robust, nearly three times as wide than the foliage on a perpetual carnation, which you can barely see on the right hand side of the image.

Malmaison carnations are quite different than other cut flower types such as the border carnations, and the perpetual carnations. They date back nearly as far as their kid do, to the 1850's, when in France, this special type was presumably bred yet the parentage is still uncertain. Named after Empress Josephine's residence 'Malmaison , not because they were invented there, but only because the flowers resembled the large, flouncy Bourbon roses so popular then, in particular, the variety known as 'Souvenir de la Malmaison'. I have that variety in the garden as well, which tells me that the flowers must be looser, and well, rustic. Nice.

You can see the differences in leaf size between the Malmaison carnation and a perpetual carnation, here.

As for the Malmaison's differentiating  points from the other cut flower types of carnations? As you can see in the above images, their foliage is larger, much thicker and denser than florist or the perpetual carnations - As for floral differences, I have read that they are much more fragrant, and even larger than perpetual carnations, but no image seems to indicate that they have better form, most seem loose, and they are known to be prone to split their flowers.

The Malmaison carnations are more at home when raised in a greenhouse, as well, preferring drier and colder conditions under glass. These requirements hint to their challenge as they are best when raised in pots, and demand a colder winter period, near freezing, yet with buoyant air, and bright light. Not exactly easy to achieve in warmer climates, and almost impossible in others. These are difficult conditions to maintain, especially in North America. With a glass greenhouse which I keep cold, I might have a chance, but there is still plenty to go wrong, especially given their long growing season of 18 months, or more.

This scanned image of text  from a 19th century book on raising Malmaison Carnations was very helpful. However, it's not very encouraging, often repeating how difficult they can be.

I am becoming obsessed with the Malmaison's however, and thinking that I might have a chance now that I know what they need. Any success should prove exciting, as they seem to have much to offer the curious plansman - first, they produce a larger plant, with more attractive, larger foliage, and many more blooms than perpetuals, which are generally raised in open beds. The Malmaison's were often displayed in conservatories, and at horticultural societies where estate growers could show off their large pots with lots of blooms on long stems.

More copy about how to raise Malmaison carnations, as well as informing me about some of the history behind the plants.

Sure, I have visions of such pots, but I doubt that will happen here. But if I can get 6 or 8 flowers at one time, vs the 1 or 2 with a perpetual, I will be thrilled. Maybe with attentive care over a couple of years, I could get a potted plant with dozens of stems of flowers, there is literature where growers, even those for the Queen of England, which showed pots with hundreds of blooms. The finest gardeners in Edwardian England had their tricks, and I do have some of those books, but I don't live in the UK, and I fear that our hot summers may 'do them in'

I do enjoy all of the vintage advertisements in all of the old books about carnations. It's amazing, and sad, to see how many greenhouses existed in the North East however.

I'll concede that raising carnations today is rather impractical for most gardeners, unless one lives in Northern California. They will never make nice and full garden specimens, which is probably why you won't see any being offered at the big box store nurseries, or by companies like Proven Winners. These cut flower types are challenging, and best if grown from cuttings annually, raised under glass, in gridded flower farm netting, and then disposed of only to start again with a new set of cuttings.

The old way of cuttings struck in February,  then rooted under glass, set out into outdoor cold frames or beds for summer growth, and then dug up, and taken in for the autumn in glass greenhouses, where they are kept until buds form, kept through the winter, and then, if one is lucky, allowed to bloom during the late winter, into spring when when the entire process started over again - it was just an impractical, hands-on process which today, few bother with when it comes to agriculture, unless one is raising wine grapes!

The Malmaison carnations may soon be lost, but I want to try them, if only for one more time. Sure, they demand more care, but as you know, that only makes me want to grow them even more. I can;t help myself especially when they seem so romantic due to their rarity - growable antiquity. I can raise something only experienced 150 years ago, smell it, care for it, like a bit of living history.

So I am starting my own collection of Malmaison carnations with this century-old variety I found last weekend,  this salmon pink 'Duchess of Westminster', and although I know this name has nothing to do with the Kennel Club, I kind of like the relationship it offers, maybe it's a good sign. Today I potted it up in the dense garden loam, as the old books suggest, packing it in nice and tight, keeping it cold and dry, near the glass on the cold side of the greenhouse.

As for guidelines, there are many old horticultural journals from the 1800's available on-line (through Google digital book), and they have been helpful, but as these are old techniques, I may have to ask as few of the British collectors for some tips.

There are a few sources in the UK for Malmaison carnations, which makes a trip over there more likely, for me! Allwood's offers a collection even, and  I can sure that a few enthusiasts in the many carnation societies in the UK could find some to share with a desperate American. Getting back home, would be the only problem (not that that has stopped me before!).

The flowers themselves are looser, and perhaps not even as attractive as the newer and fuller perpetual carnations, like those you see at the florist today, but they are known to be larger, and more fragrant. I don't really care about the size nor the vigor, as I am about the fragrance, and history - for like many old flowers that I want to grow, it's all about the provenance.

As for other carnations, I am still on a hunt - a mad hunt, for any.  I welcome and tips on sources for the old border, perpetual or now, Malmaison carnation - cuttings or plants. If you  know of any source - please let me know. Many of you shared delightful sources for other Dianthus, but mostly for garden pinks, or the old annual forms such as 'Chaubaud Giants'. It's the cut flower forms I am looking for, and they may turn up in surprising places. An old florist who still grows plants, an old conservatory at an estate (like, I imagine that Isabella Stewart Gardner would have raised these Malmaisons?), or some enthusiast in California who might have some outdoors, or even one of you fine British growers who could spare a cutting or two when I visit next - perhaps in May?). Hint hint!

I could go on and on about carnations as both garden plants, and as greenhouse cut flowers, but that, I will need to save for a book or a longer article, as there is just too much to cover in a single blog post. I have been building an enormous file of information about both the history of these important 19th Century cut flower, as well as a database of cultural and social information. For example, I never knew about the connection of the carnation, with Mother's Day, and how Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother's Day in 1948 used the carnation as a marketing tool. I never knew about the Russian royal family, the Romanov's, and how they raised Malmaison carnations in their greenhouses. Oh, so much more to discover here about this ridiculously common, yet somehow unknown or at least, un appreciated flower.


  1. Thank you for that very informative post! I have been fascinated with old-fashioned cut flower carnations for a while; I got two of the perpetual varieties from Annie's Annuals last spring, and am now trying to propagate more and more cuttings from them so I can plant a whole bunch in the spring. I am going to have to see that I get my hands on 'Duchess of Westminster' as well!

    1. Thanks Nic. Let's hope that Annies starts to carry more varieties!

  2. One of my first jobs was at a florist and greenhouse in Great Barrington, MA taking care of the benches full of carnations! I learned how to tie the support netting, dis-bud for larger blooms, cut when ready, etc. this was a pretty large operation with a rabbit-warren of old glass houses! It was loads of fun and something new to learn in every season!

    1. Oh Amy, I can just visualize that greenhouse range right now! I love those old greenhouse structures, wood and glass, with covered paths and mini greenhouses that connected them all. I used to work at a couple of places like that, I have no idea how they ever could afford to heat them, I suppose coal, or oil was cheaper then. One of my first crops raised in high school was a carnation crop, and at Stockbridge, I had to be on a team who raised one. Here in Mass, there were so many large ranges of rose and carnation growers, but now? All gone.

  3. Your post could not have been more timely, I just got my carnation seeds in the mail today! I am in love with the 'Merletto Crimson' carnation. Unfortunately, I have had to settle with generic varieties because of the absolute lack of choices in the US. They even stopped carrying the meager 'Chabaud Giants' carnation seeds at my local nursery, another testament to the loss of interest in growing carnations here.

    1. Justin, you should be able to find 'Chaubaud Giants' on-line, it's available either as a mix, or as single selections on many seed sites. I too love the 'Merletto Crimson' carnations as well as many of the other commercial varieties, but sadly, most, if not all are registered ( Merletto is owned and propagated by SB Talee in Colombia) and only available overseas as vegetative cuttings, they will not come true from seed. I wish that someone would develop a better seed selection, or, start selling cuttings in the US. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Anonymous1:22 PM

    dear matt
    your carnation post made me think of the opening scenes of "Jean de Florette" with gerard depardieu, where the soldier son of the covetous scheming family comes home from WWI clutching a jacketful of precious carnation cuttings. did you ever see it? the cuttings represented a potential fortune at that time, i suppose.
    i saw tall pink carnations, although i don't know what variety, being grown quite a few years back, under glass at Longwood. probably late 70's or early 80's.
    all best,
    ~ 02568

  5. Dear 02568
    I so enjoy your comments! Now, there is a film I have to get - was Gerard Depardieu young in it I wonder? Is it in French with subtitles? Who cares, it sounds like a film I would enjoy and believe me, there are very few! As for Longwood, I did see a greenhouse full of about 3 varieties a few years ago ( about 5 years ago), but I think they were miniatures. I have been told by 'someone who knows about such things' that they do have some tall carnations as well, but I have also heard that they are rather tight when it comes to sharing. Perhaps I can convince them with a good trade???

  6. Anonymous11:04 PM

    Hi Matt, love your enthusiasm for historic garden plants. It's one I share! I saw malmaison carnations at Hampton Court Flower Show many years ago (Jim Marshall's stand) and have had a fascination with them ever since. Like you, I have found the information on them is very scant. Good luck with your quest. Rob

  7. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Hi Matt,
    Did you have any success with the Duchess of Westminster? Did they flower for you?



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