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French garden diary: Sweet William the superpower

We look at the origins and aesthetics of these trouble-free perennials

The origins of the name Sweet William are still contested Pic: Cathy Thompson

The twenty-first century sees us all relentlessly on the trail of drought-resistant plants, but the predilections of some old favourites can surprise us. 

Border phlox (Phlox paniculata cultivars) and Sweet William, for example, have always been associated in my heart with the cool, fresh gardens of Perthshire in Scotland, where I spent my adolescence. 

Only the heat of a French garden has begun to demonstrate that they have superpowers. 

Since I acquired my first little collection of eight phlox cultivars back in 2015, I’ve only lost two: that in itself is unusual here! 

Even more special is the fact that, unlike many plants on my heavy clay, they never bat an eyelid when they are lifted and divided. 

During the dry weather that set in unusually early in May 2022, new divisions soldiered on and were much bigger in size this spring. 

They were (very) occasionally watered, but by the time July rolled around ‘Fujiyama’, ‘Laura’, ‘Tenor’, ‘Blue Boy’ and the rest were surpassing themselves against a west-facing wall. 

Perhaps that wall is the secret, because the border gets shade in the morning... 

Of course, they will grow taller and lusher in cooler conditions, but who’s comparing? 

Having realised that they like me, I am going to gradually add new cultivars. 

This year I made a start with a purply-pink called ‘Blue Paradise’, but I really must acquire a very old pink cultivar with a darker eye: ‘Bright Eyes’ which is almost synonymous with those cool borders of my youth. 

While the phlox are out-performing themselves in July, I am thinking about sowing more Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus). 

They are so welcome because they fill the gap between the tulips of April and May and later flowering herbaceous plants, as well as being amazingly long-lasting cut flowers. 

A July 2018 sowing has given me a bed of trouble-free perennials – this, in spite of the fact that they are usually considered biennial – that only need a light clipping after flowering to encourage young growth. 

Disputed origins of name

There’s a nasty rumour going around that the plant gets its common name because Scots know it as ‘Stinking Willie’ after William, Duke of Cumberland, who changed the history of the Scottish Highlands forever at Culloden in April 1746. 

The rumour is groundless, since Scotland’s ‘Stinking Willie’ is really ragweed, hated by agriculturists and horticulturists throughout the temperate world. 

The name could be a corruption of the French word for ‘carnation’ (and all dianthus, by association): oeillet, meaning ‘small eye’. 

It’s even suggested, since Gerard was the first to describe the plant back in Tudor times – he called it ‘Sweete Williams’ – that the William in question was actually Gerard’s contemporary, William Shakespeare. 

A pretty story, which I don’t buy, but we all love mysterious links to famous people. 

Personally, I will stubbornly continue to believe, as I did at age 10, that the flowers were named for my Uncle Willie from Glasgow... 

My treasured facsimile copy of a late seventeenth century book called The Scots Gardener insists that ‘The most natural time for sowing is, when the feeds of their own accord falls into the ground...’ 

That would be in June or July for Dianthus barbatus, but author/‘gardner’, John Reid, goes on to tell us that even in Scotland your seeds will require ‘watering and shade.’ 

How much more so in the heat of France? 

It might be worth trying a method that we used to use in the parks departments of London. 

After bedding forget-me-nots were lifted from the ground in June, we would lay the stems on the soil in a very shady spot on the nursery and – hey presto! – with the first drop of rain (or the sight of you and your watering can) the babies would spring into life. 

Make sure you sprinkle your seed – or lay down your seedheads – in rows, since then the seedlings will be very evident when they germinate. 

In the parks we would line out our forget-me-not seedlings in rows before transplanting to final spring-flowering positions in autumn, but I imagine that the following spring would be more suitable for transplanting Sweet William. 

Wallflowers, Dame’s violet, honesty and foxgloves are definitely all candidates for this treatment. 

Of course, on the right kind of soil (mine is not very conducive, being a clay that caps in summer) they will self-sow where they have flowered, but sowing in nursery rows gives you more control. 

In a large garden (where I frequently forget things!) I appreciate that. 

I would always go for the seed strains that boast the largest number of ‘auricula-eyed’ seedlings with the paler, dark-rimmed centres, especially if they are fringed and freckled. 

This is your classic plant, but also look out for ‘Sooty’, a seed strain related to Dianthus barbatus ‘Nigrescens’, whose flowers are very dark red, and shown to advantage by foliage that becomes more mahogany as it ages. 

‘Black Magic’ is similar, but a little taller. 

I’ve tried endlessly to germinate these desirable little sweeties: time to give up, I think, and buy in young plants, also available in France. 

You can contact Cathy by email at:

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