Why I love carnations

I’m obsessed with carnations. The smell, the cost, and how long they last in a vase. I can easily get 10 days from even grocery store blooms.

When I was little I thought they were the most wonderful thing. But really, at nine I adored any kind of flower. But I remember very specifically the first time I noticed it as more than just an older woman’s corsage. It was a Christmas mother-daughter tea at our church, My little sister and I got to go with our mom. I remember it being a little over my head and I was sort of bored. But at each place setting there was a red, white or pink carnation. Maybe it was because I was disengaged with the speaker but I absolutely fell in love with that flower in front of me.

Up until that point, I had always thought a carnation was supposed to smell like chocolate, (hot chocolate anyone?) Obviously it does not. After some initial disappointment, I was actually surprised so much I loved it. It’s fresh like rain and so simple, it’s comfortable and livable. The white flowers throw the strongest aroma in case you’ve never taken the time to notice their gentle sweetness. It is truly one of my favorite smells.

I love the intricacy and depth of the petals, how each frilly piece comes together in a pompom of beautiful color. I used to play the ‘love me, love me not’ game with them and then redesign the petals into a sunburst or pretend they were a skirt to the princess I was drawing. When all the petals are removed you’re left with a little cup the size of your finger (or more accurately for me as a little girl, a Barbie hat.)

One thing about carnations that used to frustrate me is how easily their stems break along one of their knobby, waxy joints. For a long time as a floral designer, I avoided them because I thought they were too old fashioned and cheap, and they broke to easily. I know now that I was just handling them wrong. It’s been many years since I’ve broken one.

Back when people used flowers for more than just weddings and events, carnations were one of the most respected varieties and had some very strong meanings attached. In the Victorian Language of Flowers carnations, in general, were symbols of pride. If you were given a red carnation it meant desperate love, but if you returned it with a striped carnation of any color you rejected the admiration. A white carnation symbolized innocence or purity, and a yellow flower meant disdain and disappointment. Gradually it turned into one of the most popular flowers worn in a gentleman's suit coat. In fact, in 1892 Oscar Wilde is famously remembered for wearing a green carnation in his jacket when he attended the opening night of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Where he also encouraged many of his young followers to wear one. When asked what it meant he replied “Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess.” The carnation continued to be a popular flower well into the 1960s. (Who doesn’t appreciate Sean Connery's well-placed red carnation in Goldfinger?) Only recently have they fallen from favor. Mainly because of our access to a greater variety of flowers from around the world.

But the more time I spend working with these flowers the more their personality speaks, once overused, today they are still considered an inexpensive flower to fill a space when you want to save the roses for something more important. I think that’s unfortunate, I realize carnations are not for everyone, and even though I tend to be more of a ‘clean lines’ girl. I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy seeing their bright, confident little heads as they continue to claim a spot for the most enduring flower in America.

Samantha Hendrickson