#87 Sweet William



Sweet William




Sweet William, Dianthus barbatus, is a variety of carnation or pink (family Caryophyllaceae), characterized by small, five-petaled flowers about an inch in diameter with pinked or serrated edges, gathered into clusters or umbels of twenty or thirty at the end of each stem in vivid shades of white to dark pinkish red . Growing from six inches to as much as two feet tall, their leaves are similar to those of other carnations, being narrow and sword-shaped in a greyish blue color (Hogan 491).[1] Although technically a perennial, they are usually treated as hardy annuals; germinated in March and planted out in May, they bloom through late summer into early autumn, while their intense clove-like scent continues to attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds (Ellis 1047).


According to the website FloraQueen, Sweet William was “one of the oldest plants to be cultivated” and dates back to classical Greece and Rome where it is often depicted in sculptured friezes. However, this information seems to be generic to all carnations. Certainly Sweet William made a fairly early appearance in England where, according to Wikipedia, it was listed in John Gerard’s 1596 definitive garden catalogue. FloraQueen also asserts that King Henry VIII had it planted in the gardens at Hampton Court,[2] a claim which is supported by the website for the Chapel Court Garden where Sweet William is included among a list of plants chosen for a new garden scheme based on a 1545 painting The Family of Henry VIII hanging elsewhere in the castle.[3]  The bright little plant was known and used throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In her magisterial Plants in Modern Garden History, Penelope Hobhouse notes Sweet William was mentioned by John Evelyn in his 1664 Gardener’s Almanac where he advised planting seeds in March with other carnations (132).[4] She also records they were planted as part of the grand bedding scheme at the French garden Grand Trianon in 1693 (180), and repeatedly cites their use in 18th century borders (201, 207, 215).


Although there are numerous legends surrounding the English common name of the flower, it has surprisingly few literary or symbolic associations. Some have suggested “William” is a corruption of The French oeilett, meaning “carnation,” and “little eye” (Watts 370 and Wikipedia), but the majority of the attributions revolve around figures in British history from William the Conqueror (Flora Queen) to William Shakespeare (Wikipedia and FloraQueen). Wikipedia helpfully points out that “Sweet William is a favourite name for lovelorn young men in English folkloric ballads,” citing the old English ballad "Fair Margaret and Sweet William,” collected in Child.[5]  This traditional association with courtship is echoed in Kate Greenaway’s identification of Sweet Wiiliam with “Gallantry” (39).


Sweet William is something of an extra in Woolf’s cast of flowers, only appearing three times in her published writing. It shows up twice in her life-writing, once in the garden at Asham in June 1919 where she records “one Sweet William” blooming along with a delphinium (D1 281). Later it is evident in the garden at Monk’s House when, in July of 1931, she amusingly complains to Ethyl Smyth about the noise made by cats “rutting” in the garden: “They make their marriage bed in the sweet williams, and their progeny will be pied, I imagine” (L4 358) -- perhaps a reference to the flower’s traditional role in courtship which also suggests that the resulting kittens will be variegated like the floral site of their breeding. Sweet William makes only one entrance in Woolf’s fiction, nine years later in her posthumously published novel Between the Acts, where it is one of a series of flowers sold by street vendors announcing the arrival of the nineteenth century -- an undistinguished reminder of a an earlier era: “They remembered—the curtains blowing, and the men crying: ‘All a blowing, all a growing,’ as they came with geraniums, sweet william, in pots, down the street” (BTA 108). 



[1] See also the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dianthus_barbatus as well as the description on the web site FloraQueen https://www.floraqueen.com/blog/sweet-william-flower-a-royal-touch-for-your-garden  Both accessed April 14, 2022.


[2] The carnation(s) in the middle of the table in the dinner scene at Hampton Court in The Waves were always presented as single flowers, not the clusters of Sweet William (TW2HD 525; TW 91-2).


[3] https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/whats-on/chapel-court/ Accessed April 14, 2022.  The painting can be viewed on-line, though I was unable to enlarge it enough to identify particular flowers: https://www.rct.uk/collection/405796/the-family-of-henry-viii Accessed April 14, 2022.


[4] Although Woolf wrote an essay on John Evelyn’s diaries in 1920 (revised in 1925 for The Common Reader as “Rambling Round Evelyn”), there is no evidence that she read his garden almanac.


[5] See Wikipedia for more ballad variations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Margaret_and_Sweet_William

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...