Dianthus is derived from Greek, meaning di, Zeus and anthos, flower, “the flower of Zeus,” indicating its importance in the religious context of Ancient Greece. In Italy, Bologna in particular, the plant has been associated with Saint Peter and celebrated widely, with a special day at the end of June dedicated to carnation. In the Middle Ages, it was one of the most popular flowers for fragrance gardens. No monastery herb garden would be complete without carnation, the medicinal uses of which were referenced as early as the Han Dynasty texts (23-206 A.D.). In European herbal medicine tradition, carnation flowers have been prescribed for the nervous and coronary disorders. However, its probably most interesting usage has been recorded in the late 1600s, when the Countess of Dorset, England, made her own love potion, including carnation, lavender, bay leaf and marjoram. It is rather ironic that the flower of the most licentious of all Greek gods is supposed to have powers to cure wayward lovers. Interesting to note is that carnation signified devotion and loyalty in a variety of traditions, from European to Asian.
I have always associated carnation with the Soviet holidays, especially November 7th and May 1st, celebrating Russian Revolution, the successful Bolshevik coup d’ état against the Provisional Government (also called October Revolution, as Russia used the Julian Calendar, in which November 7th corresponded to October 25th) and the Soviet workers, respectively. Neither would be complete without some dreaded parade, after which we, young pioneers, would have to give red carnations to the various party functionaries present. Moreover, Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow), a rich carnation-based fragrance, was used liberally and widely, due to the fact that hardly much else was available. Therefore, for the longest time, carnation was associated with my Russian language and literature teacher, who would call me “a vestige of aristocracy,” because I exhibited an anti-working class spirit by refusing to attend the young pioneer choir practice and to collect paper and iron objects for our school (to heaven knows what purpose). I suppose that now these memories are heavily tinged with nostalgia for me, because I hardly mind the scent of carnation anymore, which is also a scent of my great grandmother’s garden, where I spent many summers of my childhood.
The flower, native to the Mediterranean region and India, has been at the height of its popularity in France of Louis XIV reign, when it was selected as a flower of the court. In the 19th century, carnation (dianthus) lovers formed clubs, and although carnation fever never reached the level of tulip obsession, the flower had many devotees. In fragrances, the same tradition can be observed, with the classical compositions featuring carnation in a variety of ways, particularly to add a peppery warth to the floral compositions. However, the modern treatment of carnation has been to deem it old-fashioned and trite. Yet, the solitary flowers, with the corolla of dark red fringed petals have an intense spicy smell that lends itself wonderfully to oriental blends. Combined with rose, it lends a spicy note that adds complexity to the sweet rich glow of rose.
Essential oil is present in the small amount in petals of the carnation variety, which is called “clove pinks,” hinting at the similarity between the smell of carnation and clove. In Russian, carnation and clove, although unrelated species, are bound by etymological ties. “Gvozdika”, with the root “gvozd’” referencing the nail-like shape of the spice clove, is the common name for both the flower and the spice. Both are rich in eugenol, which gives carnations and cloves their characteristic sweet heavy scent.
Produced mostly in France and Holland, carnation absolute is rare, with a heavy, spicy floral aroma tinged by sweet dark honey notes. It is a blend of clove, black pepper and exotic sweetness of ylang ylang, which incidentally are often used to reproduce carnation scents. Absolute is a greenish jelly like substance. 500kg of flowers are required to produce 100g of oil. In perfumery, it is common to employ synthetic substances like eugenol, isoeugenol and eugenyl acetate to accentuate floral character and to lend clove and carnation like scent.
Classical perfumes containing carnation: Caron Poivre and its EDT version Coup de Fouet, Caron En Avion, Caron Or et Noir, Caron Tabac Blond, Caron Fleurs de Rocaille (1933), Guerlain Après l’Ondée, Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, Je Reviens by Worth, Givenchy L’Interdit (original), Nina Ricci L’Air Du Temps, Schiaparelli Schocking, Estée Lauder Youth Dew, Robert Piguet Bandit, Dior Dioressence.
Modern perfumes containing carnation: Yves Saint Laurent Opium, Guerlain Vétiver, Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Soie Rouge, Carthusia Fiori di Capri, Mon Classique by Pascal Morabito, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Red Door by Elizabeth Arden, Gucci No. 1, Boucheron Jaïpur Homme, Cartier Must II, Yves Saint Laurent Jazz, Molyneux Quartz, Hermès Bel Ami, Fendi Theorema, Estée Lauder Cinnabar, Estée Lauder White Linen, Estée Lauder Estée, Estée Lauder Spellbound, Guerlain Samsara, Balenciaga Cristobal, Gaultier Fragile, Dior Jules, Dior Fahrenheit, Gucci Envy for Men, Lanvin Lanvin for Men, Bvlgari Bvlgari for Men.
Bibliography: Bown, D. 1996. Encyclopaedia of Herbs and their Uses. Dorling Kindersley, London; Morris, Edwin T. 1984. Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. E.T. Morris and Co., New York, 233.