Last updated on May 22nd, 2023 at 11:02 am

Sweet William (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 tricolor. The plant grows 30 -60 cm tall, while each flower cluster is 7-12 cm wide. The leaves are lance-shaped.

Sweet William has been cultivated since the 16th century, including its double-flowered variety. 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 origin of the common name sweet William is unclear, 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 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.

What does the Sweet William flower symbolize?

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, agility, and courage.

Supporters of this theory also mention 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 refer to a different flower, Jacobaea vulgaris.

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 for 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 symbolizes love, affection, passion, and admiration for the lady it was given.

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 dies of heartbreak or commits suicide.

In the ballad ‘Sweet William’s Ghost,’ William visits Margaret in a ghost form. 

He begs her to free him from his earlier promise of marrying her. When she says he must marry her, he responds that he is 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. Ultimately, Margaret releases William from his promise but 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 she kept crying at the time of William’s departure, and black circles formed around her eyes. 

According to the legend, sweet William and black-eyed Susan became immortalized in the form of two flowers after their death. Those are Dianthus barbatus and Rudbeckia hirta, which always bloom together.

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

All in all, the sweet William flower symbolic meanings are:

  • masculinity
  • courage
  • finesse
  • gallantry

Meaning of the Sweet William flower colors

Red color

Light red sweet William flowers symbolize admiration. The dark red variety symbolizes deep love and affection. The message of the red sweet William flowers is unbounded love and admiration for the recipient.

White color

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

Pink color

Pink sweet William flowers symbolize gratitude and admiration. They also symbolize a mother’s undying love.

Interesting facts about the Sweet William flowers

  • The sixteenth-century botanist and herbalist John Gerard was the first to write about Dianthus barbatus as Sweet Williams in his 1596 garden catalog.
  • In traditional Chinese medicine, sweet William is used to treat urinary infections. In the Western medical system, the plant stimulates the urinary and digestive systems. It has diuretic, hemostatic, antibacterial, and anthelmintic properties.
  • Sweet William is an edible plant with a mind flavor. It is garnished for cooked meals, salads, sweets, cakes, and drinks.
  • Sweet William was one of the flowers featured in Kate Middleton’s bridal bouquet during her wedding to Prince William.
  • The sweet William flowers are hermaphrodites with both male and female organs. Their usual pollinators are bees, moths, and butterflies.
  • Sweet William was among Jefferson’s favorite flowers, and he cultivated it in Monticello in 1807.

How to grow Sweet William flowers

Growing and caring for these colorful flowers of sweet William is easy and effortless.

  1. Plant the sweet William in a well-drained, fertile, loamy, moist soil.
  2. Choose a spot with full sun for at least 4-5 hours of the day.
  3. Water them regularly through the growing season, but don’t overwater. 
  4. Apply an all-purpose fertilizer.

How to care for Sweet William flowers

  1. Once established, water the sweet Williams if the rainfall has been less than 1″ inch per week.
  2. Apply a slow-release fertilizer to the plants every 6 – 8 weeks to fulfill their needs.
  3. Deadhead spent flowers to encourage more blooms.
  4. Stop deadheading in the late summer to encourage self-seeding for new plants the following year.

Best time to gift Sweet William flowers

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. 

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, sweet 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 an appropriate gift for a romantic partner on occasions ranging from birthdays to anniversaries to spontaneous expressions of love. Pink flowers are a perfect gift to mothers and motherly figures in one’s life. White flowers are the most appropriate gifts for engagements and weddings.


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 are many more Williams in the European lore, who may all be bonded to this flower rather gruesomely.

If you want to know and learn more about flowers, we at PansyMaiden can help you. Check out our fun, easy-to-read, and informative flower-related content that you will surely enjoy!