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17 june 2017

Carnations were my mother's favorite flowers. She had them at her wedding, and my father ordered them for her funeral. She particularly liked a variety called "Mamie Eisenhower," though she had little else good to say about Mamie Eisenhower. She may not even have liked Ike. But the carnations, she approved of.

As a result of my mother's preferences, which she was never shy about expressing, I grew up with something of a snobbery against roses. Roses were banal. Carnations were banal, too, come to think of it, but they had the advantage of simply not being roses. Something about the structure of a carnation has always seemed more elegant to me than that of a rose, at least the modern florist's tea rose: the carnation is more abstract, less chiseled and defined. More painterly, perhaps: Twigs Way's history of the carnation, for the Reaktion Botanical series, is full of lush color reproductions of carnations in art.

Way offers an immense amount of information about the cultivation history of the carnation, particularly for a book so short and so lavishly illustrated. Some of the minutiae of varieties and their breeders will be only of interest to true carnation fanciers. Yet in the process, Carnation provides an interesting perspective on the metahistory of horticulture. "The very notion of plant 'breeding' with all its sexual overtones was strenuously denied until the late seventeenth century," says Way, citing Francis Bacon and John Ray (54), who had no idea that plants reproduced sexually. To develop new varieties of plants, growers just weeded away individuals they didn't like, watched out for "sports" of nature, and hoped for the best (53).

Even after fertilization was well understood, in the 18th century, producing desirable carnations to order was a hit-or-miss business. As with tulips, if not to such a manic extent, breeders prized streaked and variegated flowers. Another development was the increasing fullness of the blossom: the overstuffed carnation you can see today in any supermarket would have been a wonder 200 years ago. Coloration was often achieved after cutting, by letting white carnations soak up dye, as with Oscar Wilde's famous green carnations. It took genetic engineering to grow carnations in any but a narrow range of colors from mauve through red, yellow, and white, but some DNA snipping now produces blue carnations.

Way has an excellent chapter on how humans have used carnations to communicate. The boutonnière carries complex nuances of genteel masculinity. The carnation is the boutonnière par excellence, and it seems that the carnation was not employed to fill an idle buttonhole; buttonholes were invented to find a place for carnations.

Roses are well-known as political symbols, usually of royalty. Carnations have a long history of adaptation to political discourse too, though often in a more democratic vein. The popular reassertion of democracy in Portugal in the 1970s came to be called the Revolução dos Cravos, the Carnation Revolution, after crowds appropriated May Day flowers as peace symbols. The carnation had had a long association with Russian communism (hence its May Day availability), but also with the right-wing populism of Boulanger in France in the 1870s and '80s. It is also the state flower of Ohio and was associated, posthumously, with the distinctly anti-socialist Ohioan President William McKinley. There's a lot more to this little flower than my mom or Mamie Eisenhower might have dreamed.

Way, Twigs. Carnation. London: Reaktion, 2016.