Leading the way with Dianthus
Al Maas is Gallery/Database coordinator for Brugmansia Growers International. His passion for Border Carnations came to light when he contacted the website for details of 'Border Carnations in the USA'. Such was his enthusiasm we asked him to put down a few details and thoughts to share with us.
He sent the following article which you will agree shows his enthusiasm for all things horticultural
'Border Carnation What's that'
By A Maas
I have loved green, growing things as long as I can remember. No matter where I travel, all I can focus on are the plants that grow there.
I have lived all my life in the very center of the North American continent; on the little finger of the mitten-shaped peninsula called Michigan with Canada to the north and the 48 States to the south, near the shores of Lake Michigan. Cherry trees have long been the main crop on our sandy soil. Wine grapes are the newer crop and seem to love the climate and soil here too. Since my early childhood, I showed an avid interest in the plants around me and a kindly half-Indian (native American) neighbour lady fostered my interest by teaching me about the native foods and medicines that grew all around me. During my high school years, I became interested in the art of Bonsai and I started a collection which I still enjoy to this day; a few of my trees having been trained continuously since the early 1960s.
When it was time for college, I was again lucky in that Michigan State University (not too far away) was one of the first, and best, agricultural colleges in the US. I signed up to study Ornamental Horticulture to learn to grow flowers for the florist trade.
It was in the year 1972 that I first set foot in the University's library and found the stack that contained most of the floral growing guides and books about operating greenhouses. On one of the shelves, near The 'Carnation Grower's Handbook', was a small-ish hard covered book. On the cover was a photograph of one of the most striking flowers I had ever seen and the words ‘Border Carnations’. I had never heard of such a thing. I was hooked. Inside were more pictures and careful explanations showing discs of white pasteboard with holes cut in the middle into which one was to insert the calyx of a border carnation and with Ivory tweezers, carefully arrange the petals of each flower for ‘competition’. This was all very new and outlandish to me, but I read and re-read the book. The photographs were black and white, and each picture was accompanied by detailed description of the base colour, the petal texture, the colour qualities of each fleck or picotee edge as well as descriptions of the fragrances. At one point, I remember showing the book to my major professor who brushed it off as a curiosity; certainly not pertinent to our current topic of study; the lasting quality of cut roses. I have sought, in vain, for the book recently. So sad. There seems to be no record of it at the library (and I find myself wishing I hadn't been raised with such absolute respect for private property).
In those years, carnation production for the floral trade in the U.S had come to be dominated by expansive greenhouse ranges in the Rocky Mountains in the state of Colorado at elevations high enough to make cloud-cover a rarity and the style of carnation that was favored was extremely globe-shaped and as frilly-petaled as possible. They looked like fake blobs made out of shredded crepe paper. Lasting quality and the ability to be shipped around the U.S were also important. Fragrance was not valued much. It was also common to use dies and or dips to colour carnations
so big white frilly carnations saturated the trade. To this day, carnations that are available here are maximally frilly and without any shape other than globose. Pinks and Sweet Williams are also as frilly and fringed as possible. I must admit that I have never been a guy for frilly, fringed things. It seemed I was alone in favouring the more graceful, rounded Camellia-like forms. I freely admit that this is a matter of personal preference. Much like my appreciation of the simple grace of a McKana Giant Aquilegia spur as opposed to the multi-doubled mutant columbines that crowd today's catalogue pages. Please take no offense. All people's aesthetic preferences are bound to differ. My eye simply prefers the elegance that the old border carnations seem to have in great measure.
Then, life intervened, decades of it. I spent many years working in greenhouses until modern shipping methods made it much cheaper to grow almost any floral crop outdoors down south (usually with migrant labour) and ship it to major box stores in 'every-town U.S.A’ than it was to heat and staff a greenhouse and sadly, the art and trade faded out fast. Out of dozens of little family-owned greenhouses that were here in my home town in those days, only one remains and the owner freely admits it loses money every year but he tries to keep it going for the love of it and the memory of his father; a gentleman for whom I worked and from whom I learned a great deal.
Over the years though, I have maintained my habit of growing beautiful things in my own gardens, and for the last decade or so, my latest addiction has been Brugmansias. Like Dianthus, they will not breed true to seed and I doubt they will ever become overly popular with the general public as they take a certain amount of understanding and care, but they are astoundingly beautiful and fragrant and their breeding and hybridizing are enjoying a tremendous surge nowadays. I invite any and all to visit Brugmansia Growers International on the web and be sure you look through the Photo Galleries especially of the ‘Warm Group’ http://www.brugmansia.us/index.html
Somehow, my memories of border carnations have continued to haunt me and every winter, when the new year's seed catalogues come out, I vaguely expect one of the seed companies to offer some Dianthus that even remotely resembles what I recall. It finally occurred to me to use the new-fangled 'web' to see if border carnations were still ‘out there somewhere’ . This is how I discovered the British National Carnation Society. How thrilled I was to find out that border carnations were still alive and well! I understand that I'll have to start from seed - and from scratch, but I've always loved a horticultural challenge.
Forty-two years ago, a little book on a dusty shelf in the basement of a library made such an impression on me that today, a new chapter begins for me and, most likely a new addiction for my next couple of decades - if I still have them ahead of me. I'd better get busy.
I very much appreciate the kind, knowledgeable, and friendly help I have received from the BNCS already and I hope to learn much more as I read through the fine information on your website. ‘ Thank you all ‘so very much for keeping these Dianthus special !