Saturday, August 3, 2013

Carnations for amateurs

 Dutch express: 2013 Sunflor carnations from Hilverda-Kooij plant technology
These little fragrant carnations come with a label in five languages and have been shipped to Australia from The Netherlands, such is the way of the world now when marketing fresh produce. I leave the commercial growing of carnations to the big guys and grow a few just as a hobby. Now is the time of year to take cuttings of favourite ones and also to plant seed for summer flowering. Theory behind this mid winter process is that the seeds like a bit of freezing to act as a germination cue and the cuttings are less likely to die from collar rot and have more of a chance of establishing roots in a propagation medium.
Cuttings can be taken from the middle of the previous seasons flowering stem or from semi mature wood as per below. 

 I have an interesting book on carnation growing which dates from 1947, called Carnations for Amateurs by J L Gibson. The previous owner of the book earnestly wrote his name and address inside the front cover and that in itself tells a story. He lived in Richmond Street, Corinda in Brisbane. This street is on the Brisbane river flood plain and I wonder whether he had a market garden on that fertile strip of land tempered by a river breeze in summer from the worst of the humidity. Gibsons book is fairly comprehensive and has not really dated though his use of english is florid by today's standard. I love his humble words in the introduction 'Where I have floundered into pitfalls I have not hesitated to leave the red signal hoisted ,so that beginners need not blindly fall into like confusion.' He does go a bit strange when using the words 'sinister appellation' when referring to the French 'Malmaison' variety of carnation. Perhaps it refers more to the fate of Empress Josephine than anything else.
I would like to get my hands on some Malmaison carnations. These are the big fat 14cm across variety originally selected in 1857 and going strong well into the 20th century. In Britain they were assumed lost to horticulture but some were found in the 1990's in a Scottish glasshouse and these have since been cloned. They represent the 'Belle Epoque' for carnation fanciers, from the time when were at their most popular. 
Australian gardening books from last century mention the Malmaison but always with dire warnings about collar rot and other pests and diseases.
Perhaps their waning in popularity from the late 1950's onwards was about fashion. A few years after Marty Robbins had his 1957 hit A White Sport Coat (and a pink carnation), the fashion was probably turning away from adorning a buttonhole with a carnation for a dance at 'Cloudland' in Brisbane by a younger generation not wishing to emulate their parents and adopting a more Marlon Brando cool.
 I have included the Keith Urban Marty Robbins tribute below.
Carnations are still available in a good range of colours from mail order nurseries who advertise rooted cuttings. They do like a dry climate, are not fussy about fertilizers and like a bit of lime added to the soil. They are very successful when grown in pots but best treated as an annual in warm climates.

 Carnation sophistication: from 1933 exhibition 'Plant Form in Ornament'
Iznik carnation bowl displayed on Italian velvet
Department of Islamic Art, 'The Met' ,New York

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