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The History of the Carnation Flower

Image by, courtesy of Diana

The carnation is the designated flower of all those who celebrate a January birthday. It is also traditionally considered to denote fascination and distinction. In particular, deep red carnations are associated with love, white carnations with purity, pink carnations with gratitude and green carnations with Saint Patrick’s Day. Over the centuries, the carnation has certainly achieved different measures of distinction.


The carnation has been cultivated for over 2,000 years in Asia and Europe, and its name likely derives from “coronation” or “corone” for the floral garlands that were fashioned for ancient Greek ceremonial events. The Greek botanist Theophrastus gave it the botanical name “Dianthus” meaning “flower of the gods.” There are over 300 species, mostly perennials, blooming happily in full sunlight and well-drained soil, and in most of the colors of the rainbow except blue.

Religious Significance

According to Catholic legend, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, wept at the sight of her son bearing the cross, and her tears turned to the first carnations. Leonardo da Vinci immortalized the association of the carnation with Mary and Jesus when he painted “The Madonna with the Carnation” (ca. 1475 to 1476). This painting is part of a collection housed in Munich, Germany, and is also called the “Munich Madonna.”

State, National Flower

In 1904, the state of Ohio adopted the red carnation as its official state flower. The selection of the red carnation honors President William McKinley, who was an Ohioan, and who was assassinated in 1901. President McKinley was fond of wearing a red carnation in the buttonhole of his jacket lapel. The carnation is also the national flower of Spain.

Mother's Day

Image by, courtesy of Busy again) (Athena Flickr

The carnation is the official flower of Mother’s Day. Anna Marie Jarvis (1864 to 1948), who founded Mother’s Day, selected the carnation as a tribute to her own mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis (1832 to 1905), who was a social activist and promoted worker health and safety. After her mother’s passing, Anna Marie Jarvis campaigned for a recognized Mother’s Day holiday. In 1907, she sent 500 white carnations to her mother’s parish church, St. Andrew’s in Grafton, West Virginia, for the mothers in the congregation. President Woodrow Wilson granted her wish in 1914, when Mother’s Day became an official holiday.


Today, edible flowers are a popular addition to fine dining. The carnation is classified as an edible flower. Its petals have been used to make the French liqueur Chartreuse since the 17th century. Carnations are a popular choice to decorate cakes, and carnation petals can also be added to ornament ice cubes and to flavor salads. Make certain, though, to use only organic flowers in cooking, to ensure they do not contain pesticides or other harmful products.

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