A Floral History: The Story Behind
the Carnation

Carnations are the beautiful, feathery flowers used in bouquets, arrangements, and as decorative blossoms in gardens. Their ruffled petals are distinctive and come in many vibrant colors. Carnations have a rich history and are the primary flower for boutonnieres and corsages. They are the representative flowers of January, but are too pretty to be excluded from the rest of the year.

The scientific name for a carnation is dianthus caryophyllus, and there are more than 300 species of them cultivated today. Carnations are one of the most symbol heavy flowers in American culture, and connote varying sentiments when worn at different times and in different settings.

Carnations first made their appearance as a cultivated flower over 2,000 years ago. They were primarily grown in Europe and Asia. In ancient Greece, the flowers were described by one of the earliest botanists, Theophrastus. He is the individual who gave the flower species its scientific name “dianthus,” which translates as divine. The name carnation is derived from the word coronation in Greece where, during ancient times, they were often used in crowns and garlands at ceremonial services.

In the wild, carnations may be singular or hybrid species due to cross-pollination. The ones seen in arrangements and at flower shops tend to be cultivated breeds. Wild versions feature fewer petals, but are rarely seen in the modern wilderness. Wild carnations grow most commonly today in Mediterranean countries.

The Scent of a Carnation and the
Origin of the Boutonniere

The scent of carnations is light, but fragrant. In Medieval times, a variety called clove pink was grown specifically for its subtle clove scent. Today, the flowers are available with or without scents. Many aging individuals may remember the scent of carnations as much more potent than the varieties available today. Carnations were some of the first flowers worn in clothing and were specifically chosen for their ability to mask foul odors. Those used in dress attire today generally do not have a scent.

The tradition of the boutonniere, for which the carnation is well known, has an uncertain history. The practice likely began in France in the Middle Ages, around the same time that ladies started to carry bouquets for wedding ceremonies. In addition to masking the unpleasant odors of the time, people also superstitiously believed that wearing the flowers would ward off evil spirits and protect those who wore them from illness.

Today the most potent carnations are developed for use in perfumes and carnation absolute can only be found in the south of France – the home of flower scent extraction. Perfumes that smell vaguely of pepper and spice may contain carnations, but many perfumeries have turned to lighter and fresher fragrances.

Symbolism and Culture

Historically, flowers often symbolize feelings that are difficult to say out loud. Carnations, in particular, are incredibly symbolic. Notice the times of year you see carnations, and you may start to observe a pattern in how they are used by florists and individuals around the world.

Here are some of the more common associated meanings carnations carry:

  • On Parents Day in parts of North and South Korea, children give their parents red and pink carnations to show appreciation.
  • In France, carnations are primarily used in funeral practices, to show sympathy for loss. French superstitions also hold that the flower means bad luck.
  • Christian legend holds that carnations were born out of the Virgin Mary’s tears as Jesus carried the cross towards his crucifixion. Leonardo Da Vinci even represented the concept in his painting “The Madonna with the Carnation.” Today, many wear carnations on Mother’s Day in North America to represent the steadfastness of a mother’s love.
  • Ancient Romans considered carnations a tribute to the king of the gods, Jove.
  • Students wear white, pink, and red carnations during exam processes at Oxford University in England.
  • The carnation has been the state flower of Ohio since 1904. The choice honors President William McKinley, who commonly wore a red carnation boutonniere.
  • Carnations are generally considered symbolic of socialism, and may be worn during protests and demonstrations.
  • The Netherlands associate white carnations with Prince Bernhard, who wore one during World War II as a statement of defiance. Today, individuals wear the white carnation in remembrance of the time.
  • Green carnations are worn on St. Patrick’s Day. The tradition started with Irish author Oscar Wilde.
  • Red carnations are used in Portugal as a symbol of the coup d’etat in 1974, which ended the decades long fascist regime. It is now known as the Carnation Revolution.










Carnations are beautiful, delicate, and full flowers. They are the perfect addition to almost any celebration or occasion and are available today in a number of different colors. From small varieties that work perfectly to complement another flower, to large, ornamental blooms, carnations are timeless and meaningful flower choices.


Photo Credit:

Photographer PublicDomainPictures offered the photograph of Carnation under a Creative Commons License on Pixabay

Photographer ruicar offered the photograph of Yellow Carnations under a Creative Commons License on Pixabay

Photographer PollyDot offered the photograph of Dianthus caryophyllus under a Creative Commons License on Pixabay