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Sweet Willam (Dianthus barbatus) is a flower species in the family Caryophyllaceae. The genus contains nearly 300 species. The plant is a bushy and short-lived perennial, with dense clusters of small flowers. Some varieties have fragrant flowers. The flower clusters are terminal and flat-topped. They can be in shades of pink, red or white, sometimes bi-colored or tri-colored. The plant grows 30 -60 cm tall, while each flower cluster is 7-12 cm wide. The leaves are lance-shaped.

Dianthus flowers are native to Southern Europe (from the Pyrenees to the Carpathian and the Balkan Peninsula) and parts of Asia (China, Korea and Southern Russia). Historical records indicate that flowers of this genus have been cultivated for over a millennium. Sweet William, including its double-flowered variety, has been cultivated since the 16th century. King Henry VIII ordered this flower to be planted at his castle in Campton Court.

The flower is also known under several other common names, including Sweete Williams, China Carnation, Bearded Pink, and Sweet William Pink.


The family Caryophyllaceae derives its name from the Greek phrase karya phyllon which means a walnut leaf, since the leaves of some of its species have an aromatic scent.

First to use the genus name Dianthus was the Greek botanist and physician, Theophrastus. Dianthus is often translated as a divine flower. The word Dianthus is derived from the Latin terms di and dios, referring to the god Zeus, and anthos, which means flower. Dianthus is, therefore, Zeus’s flower. There is a mythological belief that god Zeus was the divine guardian of the flower. The Roman equivalent to Zeus was Jupiter, and all flowers that belong to the genus Dianthus are called fleur de Jupiter.

The flowers in this genus are also called carnations, a name which is derived from the word carne, meaning flesh. This name is a reference to the flower color. In the era of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, Dianthus flowers were often depicted in decorative friezes on important architectural structures. Sweet William flowers were often woven into garlands and ceremonial crowns (called corone) and worn on coronation occasions.

The epithet barbatus is a reference to the barbed (beard-like) growth arising from the flower.

The origin of the common name Sweet William is not quite clear, although some etymologists and botanists have proposed the theory that it is a reference to Saint William. It is also speculated that the name of this flower could be a corruption of the French word oeillet (eyelet), later mispronounced in English as ‘’willy’. According to a different speculation, the flower bears the name of William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, who led the British forces against the Jacobites in the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Finally, some believe that the flower is named after William the Conqueror, because Sweet William flowers were abundantly blossoming on the hills of Normandy, at the time of his victory. Perhaps the least accepted among the many theories about the origin of the flower’s name is the one that links Sweet William to the renowned English playwright, William Shakespeare.

Sweet William Flower Symbolism

A Flower of Gods

Greek Mythology tells the story of how carnations flowers were created, and why Zeus (the chief god of the Greek pantheon) was the guardian of these flowers. The story goes that goddess Hera had her own flower, the beautiful and fragrant lily. Zeus became jealous, and threw a lightning bolt on the plain of Thessaly. Where the lightning stroke, carnation flowers were created.

A Flower of Masculinity and Courage

Sweet William is a flower of masculinity. This symbolic meaning is mainly supported by the etymological link of the flower to William Augustus and the Battle of Culloden. In this context, the Sweet William flower represents boldness, bravery, dexterity and courage.

Supporters of this theory also mention the Scottish lore. After the Jacobites got defeated, the flower became known as stinking Willie or sour Billy. However, other sources indicate that the latter two derogatory names actually refer to a different flower, Jacobaea vulgaris.

A Symbol Of Finesse and Gallantry

Other symbolic meanings of Sweet William stem from the Victorian-era ‘secret language of the flowers’. At that time, the flower meant finesse, gallantry and perfection of the man who offered the flower to a lady. The message of Sweet William was ‘Grant me a smile’ or ‘Will you smile?’. The flower also symbolized love, affection, passion and admiration for the lady to whom it was given.

Tears of Mother Mary

Since the twelfth century, the Sweet William flower was often seen in monastic gardens of Southern Europe. According to a strong Christian symbology, when Jesus Christ was crucified, Mother Mary’s tears fell on the ground and turned into Dianthus flowers. This is the reason for the popularity of Dianthus flowers among the monastic gardens of Europe. In the twelfth century the Carthusian monks introduced these flowers to the European gardens.

The Lost Eyes of The Innocent Shepherd

An old Greek myth links the beautiful Dianthus flowers with the human eyes.

Artemis, the Greek goddess of flora, fauna and hunting, was once followed in the forest by a curious young man. When she could no longer avoid his gaze, she took out her bow and arrow and shot out his eyes. It is said that where the young man’s eyes fell on the ground, Dianthus flowers sprang up.

In a different version of the same myth, the unfortunate man had simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Goddess Artemis had been very disappointed after an unsuccessful hunt in the forest. She then noticed a young shepherd playing his flute. Artemis blamed his music for her unsuccessful hunt and, in a fit of anger, shot out his eyes. Soon after she regretted the act, and her grace turned his fallen eyes into red carnation flowers.

Mythologists explain that the mystical connection between the human eyes and the Dianthus flower is a rather straightforward reflection of the flower’s morphology. Namely, the bi-colored Dianthus flowers often have contrasting, fiery-like ‘eyes’ at their center.

A Flower of Lovers Set Apart

Other negative connotations attributed to the flower during the Victorian era were artifice, scorn, treachery and unrequited love.

Hardly can there be another flower of such a popular name. Many claims have been laid about the identity of Sweet William. Several historically important men are mentioned in the context of the flower’s etymology. However, there seem to be many more Williams in the European lore, who may all be bonded to this flower in a rather gruesome way.

The Sweet William flower often symbolizes the fate of heartbroken lovers. There are several such popular English or Scottish stories and ballads. Some examples include ‘Fair Margaret and Sweet William,’ ‘Sweet William’s Ghost,’ and ‘The Unquiet Grave’.

The English ballad of Fair Margaret and Sweet William tells the story of a man named William who, although in love with Fair Margaret, marries another woman. Heartbroken, Fair Margaret commits suicide, and appears in William’s dream as a ghost. William realizes his true love for her, but it is too late. In different versions of the ballad he either dies of a heartbreak, or commits a suicide.

In the ballad called ‘Sweet William’s Ghost,’ it is William who visits Margaret in a ghost form. He begs her to set him free from his earlier promise of marrying her. When she says he must marry her, he responds that he is already dead. When he asks him to at least kiss her, he responds that the kiss would kill her. The conversation between the lovers continues along similar lines. In the end Margaret releases William from his promise but then dies of a broken heart.

Another literary example is the eighteenth-century poem by John Gray, about Black-eyed Susan and Sweet William. Susan and William were lovers saying their final farewells, since William had to depart on a long sea voyage. To her, he was her ‘sweet’ William. She was called black-eyed Susan, because at the time of William’s departure she kept crying, and black circles formed around her eyes. According to the legend, after their death, Sweet William and Black-eyed Susan became immortalized in the form of two flowers. Those are Dianthus barbatus and Rudbeckia hirta, which always bloom together.

A Flower of Death

In both Germany and the German Cantons of Switzerland, there was once a custom of decking graves with Dianthus flowers.

In Ancient Greece, Dianthus flowers were often given to the ill and the dying, as a symbol of life’s fragility.

What Do the Various Colors of the Sweet William Flower Mean

Historically, the Sweet William flower has been one of the flowers included in the larger category of carnations. Therefore, when spoken of Sweet William, the larger context of carnation flower symbolism needs to be considered.

Red Sweet William Flower Meaning

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Light red carnations symbolize admiration. Dark red carnations symbolize deep love and affection. The message of red carnations is unbounded love and admiration for the recipient.

White Sweet William Flower Meaning

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White carnations symbolize purity, innocence, pure love, talent and luck. The message of this flower is ‘you are sweet’.

Pink Sweet William Flower Meaning

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Pink carnations symbolize gratitude and admiration. They also symbolize a mother’s undying love.

Some Interesting Facts and Characteristics of the Sweet William Flower

  • The first written reference to the Sweet Willam flower: The sixteenth century botanist and herbalist, John Gerard, was the first to write about Dianthus barbatus as Sweet Williams, in his 1596 garden catalog.
  • Medicinal use: In traditional Chinese medicine, Sweet William is used to treat urinary infections. In Western medical system, the plant is used to stimulate the urinary and digestive systems. It has diuretic, hemostatic, antibacterial, and anthelmintic properties.
  • Edibility: Sweet William is an edible plant with mind flavor. It is used as a garnish for cooked meals, salads, sweets, cakes and drinks.
  • A flower of the royal wedding: Sweet William was one of the flowers featured in Kate Middleton’s bridal bouquet during her wedding to Prince William.
  • Mysterious origin of carnation flowers: The Sweet William flower is a type o carnation flower. The origin of carnations is not very clear. It is believed that these flowers were introduced to Europe from the Ottoman Empire.
  • A hermaphrodite flower: The Sweet William flowers are hermaphrodite — they have both male and female organs. Their usual pollinators are bees, moths and butterflies.
  • The flower after which the pink color got its name: The flowers of the genus Dianthus are also known under the name pinks. Etymologically, the pinks derived their name from the word pinksten or pfingsten, which was the German commonly used name for flowers blooming at Pentecost. Some sources link the verb ‘to pink’ which means ‘to decorate with a perforated pattern’ refers to the frilled or zigzagged edges of the Dianthus flower petals.
  • Thomas Jefferson’s favorite flower: Sweet William was among Jefferson’s favorite flowers, and he cultivated it in Monticello in 1807.
  • The flower which can remove troubles: The Dianthus flower is known in Japan as hana-fuki, which means ‘to blow away’. The name comes from the belief that when one smells the sweet scent of this flower, all the troubles get blown away.

The Best Time to Gift Someone a Sweet William Flower

Sweet William flower is a popular ornamental plant. It is used in cut flower bouquets, in dried flower arrangements, in container boxes, and as a garden flower, too. Sweet William is quite durable as a cut flower, staying fresh for up to two weeks. Additionally, many varieties have a sweet scent, which adds to the charm of a floral arrangement. As a gift, Swet William flowers are romantic, old-fashioned, delicate and discrete.

Sweet William flowers are a beautiful and appropriate gift on any occasion, provided one is cautious of the different color symbolism. Red Sweet William flowers are appropriate gift for a romantic partner on occasions ranging from birthday to anniversaries to spontaneous expressions of love. Pink ones are a perfect gift to mothers and motherly figures in one’s life. The white flowers are most appropriate gifts on the occasion of engagements and weddings.