Memories are made of this: sweet Williams

It may be a few weeks before I get into the groove again on here so the next posts will be a bit random.

I grow quite a lot of flowers for cutting at work and one that I am glad I sowed last summer is sweet Williams. Not only are they bountiful, wonderfully old-fashioned and fragrant, their intricate flowers and sweet scent have transported me back to my childhood.

In particular back to my great aunt and uncle: Carrie and Bert. They lived in a remarkable, small Tudor farmhouse, with black timbers and the characteristic wider upper floor, in a small valley down a bumpy track in west Surrey. It was an achingly beautiful place though they basically subsisted with a few cows, hens and fruit and vegetables. Hazel and chestnut was coppiced and they existed on very little – a model for today. We used to visit, especially in summer and I have many clear memories. Sadly, the most vivid is that their toilet, in a tiny shed, was a chemical toilet, complete with squares of newspaper. I hated it and used to avoid it like the plague. I think it is down to these visits that helped me develop my extraordinary bowel control.*

On a less unsavoury note, I remember wandering along the lanes marveling at the starry white blooms of greater stitchwort, picking them and spinning them so they floated down like helicopters. And the minnows in the stream that was lined with yellow musk and pink orchids. I remember warm strawberries from the garden with cream – unpasturised, cream-coloured cream – I used to think it tasted a bit ‘cowy’ but how I would relish it now when cream does not taste of cream and is not even cream in colour! I remember the garden which was a true ‘cottage’ garden with flowers intermingled with flowers, not the nonsense ‘Chelsea’ type. I remember hebes, especially purple ‘Autumn Glory’ which they called veronica**. And Madonna lilies (L. candidum) and lots of self-sown violas and pansies. And there were sweet WIlliams which were either perennial or self sown.

It was the scent of sweet WIlliams today that reminded me of those happy days and the taste of strawberries and cream.

Sweet Williams are a type of dianthus; Dianthus barbatus, which is native to Southern Europe and into Asia. It is named barbatus (bearded) after the whiskery calyces around the flowers. It is biennial or short-lived perennial that flowers in May or June and good plants can be carefully kept for another year or you can take cuttings. Seeds should be sown about now for strong plants to set out in autumn to flower the following year.

They were widely grown in Shakespeare’s time and it has been suggested that it is even named after him. My own preference when it comes to the etymology is that it is derived from the French oeillet which means ‘carnation’ (oeillets) and ‘little eye’ so seems to tick all the boxes.


You can buy plants in bloom now but it is an expensive way to get them. Of course things are more complicated these days and you can get annual sweet Williams that will bloom the same year as sowing.

Sweet Williams come in a wide range of colours from almost black to white. The most highly prized, by me at least, are those with zoned flowers, called ‘auricula-eyed’. There are doubles too, which come partly true from seed. ‘Green Ball’ or ‘Green Tick’ is a real oddity with no flowers but ever-expanding heads of green whiskers that is a bit of a flop (literally) as a garden plant but nice for flower arrangers. It is perennial and not available as seed.

But the joy of sweet Williams is their colour and fragrance. They make perfect cut flowers and last well, though they do make the water smelly so need frequent changes.

Some bunches with sweet Williams:

Red sweet WIlliams, dianthus ‘Lady in Red’ and orange Garvinea gerberas


Pink sweet Williams and dianthus ‘Doris’ (some of the ‘Doris’ plants have sported into what I think is ‘Doris Supreme’)


Just mixed sweet Williams

If you want to enjoy them next year, now is the time to sow.

I sowed mine last week and included lots of ‘Auricula-eyed’ this time.


* I know that at my age I should not push my luck by saying that!

** As is the way of things hebes are now ‘really’ called veronicas because although they were originally Veronica and botanists moved the shrubby ones to the genus Hebe, they have now decided that they are Veronica again.

11 Comments on “Memories are made of this: sweet Williams”

  1. derrickjknight
    June 27, 2019 at 8:54 am #

    Entertaining post with sweet memories. I learned my first German word in the loo of my childhood: schnittlinie – cutting line – from my mother’s squares of dressmaking patterns.

  2. derrickjknight
    June 27, 2019 at 9:01 am #

    Entertaining post with sweet memories. I learned my first German word in the loo of my childhood: schnittlinie – cutting line – from my mother’s squares of knitting patterns.

    • thebikinggardener
      June 27, 2019 at 8:09 pm #

      Thank you. I fear I learned my first German word from Hogan’s Heroes, not a TV programme that merits viewing today.

  3. derrickjknight
    June 27, 2019 at 9:02 am #


  4. Meriel
    June 27, 2019 at 11:46 am #

    A shame we don’t yet have smell-a-pic! My little pot of sweet williams have horrible yellow streaks on some of the leaves. Virus? I especially need advice on my bearded Iris foliage. It begins with slight mottling, becoming yellow patches and turning brown in the centre. Is it a disease? Wet? Slugs? I’ve cut foliage to a low fan of a couple of as yet, unmarked central leaves.

    • thebikinggardener
      June 27, 2019 at 8:08 pm #

      It could be virus, especially if there are aphids. With regard the iris, the worst problem is leaf spot, a fungal disease that looks just as you describe. Cutting back the foliage now, after flowering is not a bad idea, and a little dose of a high potash fertiliser will not harm, or some sulphate of potash. Wet weather makes it worse and it has been bad this spring, though the current weather will halt it.

  5. thelonggardenpath
    June 27, 2019 at 10:39 pm #

    Ah, yes! Remind me of my childhood too! I do try to grow some plants when I can, but should really try them from seed.

  6. Meriel
    June 28, 2019 at 6:29 pm #

    Many thanks, I have loads of potash from quite a few bonfires this spring. Will do. No aphids, thank goodness, but some slugs & snails, particularly on ‘Ghost Train’ which is right beside a dry stone wall/ heap. They ate right through one of the stems! Next year I will check at an earlier stage!

  7. tonytomeo
    July 1, 2019 at 12:17 am #

    Ha! ‘nonsense ‘Chelsea’ type’! Thank you for saying that. ‘Chelsea’ this and ‘Chelsea’ that has been getting rather tiresome. The more I hear about it, the less interested I am in it. That which grows in normal home gardens for generations is so much more interesting, and in almost all cases, horticulturally correct!

    • thebikinggardener
      July 1, 2019 at 7:42 am #

      Indeed. Of course a Chelsea garden display is supposed to be over the top but (and it is not a criticism of the work that goes into them) bears little relationship with real life. I do not want to criticise the hard work and expense that goes into these exhibits.

      • tonytomeo
        July 1, 2019 at 7:50 am #

        Oh, I get it. I put a lot of work into my exhibit in 2009. I just think that people should recognize it for what it is, as an exhibit, much like we see art in a museum. It is not something that must necessarily set all trends and fads for home gardening. I respect what I see in the real gardens of normal people more than what I see at a garden show.

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