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What is Sweet William?

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  • Written By: Kay Blynn
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 19 July 2018
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Sweet William is the common name for a flower in the Dianthus family of plants, which consists of over 300 species of flowers including the carnation. Originating in Eurasia, Sweet William, or Dianthus barbatus, is a biennial that comes in a variety of pink colors. It prefers light soil and can grow well in sunny or partly sunny locations. Although to date there are no verifiable medicinal uses for Sweet William, in recent years it has become a popular edible flower.

The Sweet William flower originated in southern Europe and Asia, with some varieties found as far north as Russia. It produces clusters of flowers in white, pink, red and purple. In recent times, Dianthus barbatus has been cultivated in many different color variations, either solid or a mix of colors. The petals of the flower are serrated, having rough edges. Sweet William generally grows from 12 to 24 inches (about 0.3 m to 0.6 m) tall.

Sweet William is a biennial, i.e., a plant with a two-year life cycle, producing only leaves in the first year. Seeds sown in the first year bloom in the spring of the second year. Because of this, Sweet William is often used as an annual. Blooming Dianthus can be planted every season, rather than waiting two years for flowers to bloom.

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Dianthus barbatus is an herbaceous plant. Herbaceous plants have a relatively soft, green stem and die when the weather turns cold. The seeds, however, can survive the winter quite well and produce flowers in the spring. Sweet William generally blooms early in the growing season and continues to bloom until the first frost.

This flower propagates best through seed, although it can be grown from cuttings or by dividing the roots. Sweet William prefers slightly alkaline soil in sunny locations. Because of its short stature, Dianthus is a good plant for the front of flower beds, in borders, and for container gardens.

Ancient cultures believed that adding the petals of Sweet William to wine or vinegar created a tonic that would soothe the nerves. The scientific community has yet to verify any medicinal uses for the plant, however. In recent years, Dianthus has been listed as an edible flower. It can be used as a garnish in salads and desserts. It’s also been reported that the petals, cut away from the bitter white base of the flower, have a scent and taste similar to clove or nutmeg.

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