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June 13th, 2008 by Jill Hall

Clump of pale pinks in garden.I wanted to show you some live pinks in my garden, before they “went by.” I almost missed them; we had an obnoxious heat wave here last week which shortened their bloom time as well as my ambition to take pictures of them. Yesterday was cool and lovely, though, so here we are.

First a clump of pale pinks in situ. In the 1627 English Village these are also called gilloflowers or gillyflowers, soft “g”, so of course they’re my favorite. They have a wonderful spicy scent. They don’t last long as cut flowers, though.

I checked the Oxford English Dictionary Online and a facsimile of the 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herbal looking for some information on pink the color, pink the flower, and carnations. According to the OED “pink” meant a small boat and a small fish before it meant the color between red and white. Interestingly, though, the earliest reference to pink as a color had to do with a yellow color, not what we call pink now: 1634 H. Peacham “your principall yellow be these – Orpiment, Masticot, Saffron, Pinke Yellow, Oker de Luce, Umber.


The OED’s first reference to pink as the color between red and white is in 1669. Of course the OED isn’t infallible, and they’re recording the first use in writing not in conversation.


Close up live pink with dark spot.As early as the 1500s pink meant a decorative hole, cut or slash in a garment. Sometimes a different color of cloth showed through the pinks. Remember pinking shears? Which were so much more used before sergers became common.


That kind of pink, like pinking shears, is how the edge of the petals of these flowers look, which is probably why they were called pinks rather than that they were the color we now call pink. Every time I try to connect the dots in words between the jagged edges of the flowers, their color, and the color between pink and red it is a hopeless muddle. But I’m betting you know what I mean.


Anyway, Gerard in 1633 has an entry called “of Clove Gillofloures” and a separate one called “Of Pinks, or wilde Gillofloures”. He’s got an illustration of the “great double carnation” under the first heading, along with the double clove gilloflower, the white carnation, the blue or deep purple gilloflower and the single gilloflower or Pinke. Under the second entry he’s got illustrations called single purple pinks, single red pinks, white jagged pinks and several more: purple, white, wild, dwarf, mountain, and leafless.Embroidered pink.


My garden has a second variety with a dark red stripe at the base of the petal. These ones really put me in mind of the stitched pink on our jacket. I got both plants from the Plimoth Plantation horticulture department’s spring plant sale a few years ago. The horticulture department (as you might expect) specializes in rare and heirloom varieties. Nowadays pinks belong to the dianthus family. And that’s probably more than you wanted to hear about pink!

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