G is for Gillyflower

Written by Kerry E.B. Blacksquashed bug illumination

Gillyflower refers to carnations and other especially fragrant flowers, including stock flower. Grown for their spice-sweet smells and colorful blooms, gillyflower finds its way into toilet waters and colognes. William Makepeace Thackery mentioned this use in Chiswick Mall. “I have put up two bottles of the gillyflower water for Mrs. Sedley.” George Eliot had a character speak of the plant with derision in Adam Bede. “…a bit of a wench, as is o’ no more use nor the gillyflower on the wall…”

Popular belief claims the blooms with the heady clove scent arrived in England with the Normans, largely because of it prevalence in Normandy and growth around old Norman castles in England. William Shakespeare’s Perdita in “The Winter’s Tale” says, “The fairest flowers o’ the season, are our carnations, and streak’d gillyvors, which some call nature’s bastards.” John Gerard in his 1597 Herball claims gillyflower “…is exceeding cordial, and wonderfully above measure doth comfort the heart.” He gives other names for the plant, including Blunket, Horse-flesh, Pagiant, and Sops in Wine.

The formal name for the flower, Dianthus, comes from Greek for “heavenly flower.” A Christian legend credits Mother Mary’s tears for the birth of the flower. Thus, a pink carnation symbolizes a mother’s undying love and as such, mothers wear carnations on Mother’s Day. The symbolism has evolved, and now in the US and Canada, on Mother’s Day, a red carnation may be worn if one’s mother is alive, and a white one is donned if she has died. Lots of people show their admiration for the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day by donning a gillyflower, sometimes dyed green.

In floriography, or the language of flowers, the plant represents love, fascination, and distinction. As ever month is assigned a flower, Carnation or gillyflower serves as the birth flower for January. In Korea, carnations are worn on Parents’ Day and Teachers’ Day. It also is the national flower of Spain. The Scarlet Carnation is the recognized flower for the US state of Ohio. The station badge of the British Royal Air Force bears a gillyflower and rose.

Along with a red rose, the red carnation can symbolize the labor movement and is worn on May Day. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands wore a white carnation during World War II as a gesture of defiance, and many Dutch people followed suit. To this day in the Netherlands, wearing a white carnation commemorates veterans.

In the Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd,” gilliflowers are mentioned in Mrs. Lovett’s song “Wait.” The plant grows in Oxford in the novel “Brideshead Revisited.” In the ballad “Clerk Saunders,” a ghost tells the fate of women who die in labor. “Their beds are made in heaven high, down at the foot of our good Lord’s knee. Well set about wi’ gillyflowers…” Even “Dr. Who” jumped on the Gillyflower admiration club with the eleventh episode of season seven (Crimson Horror) by naming a character played by Diana Rigg “Mrs. Gillyflower.”

“The Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern” of 1753, contains a recipe for gillyflower wine.  Cooks added gillyflowers to other drinks, too, and it added a fragrant touch to sauces. It was used in nosegays and poesies, and it was an ingredient in pomanders worn by fashionable Renaissance people. Gillyflower even served as payment for rent. For example, in 1262 in Bedforshire, the land called The Hyde rented for “one clove of gillyflower.” Gillyflower can also refer to a kind of roundish, deep red apple.

The herbaceous perennial plant grows best in full sun and reaches a height of up to eighty cm. It comes in many colors, but the delightful scent is its greatest distinction. At the time of this writing, Colombia is the largest carnation producer in the world.

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