There are moments when plants grab your heart. It might be a colour, a form, foliage but something reaches out and grabs you. And so it was when I saw Dianthus cruentus in Cleve West’s Best in Show garden in 2011. And I wasn’t the only one, within days all plants available in the UK had been snapped up, and it took 2 years for seed stocks to build up enough to satisfy demand. So I had to wait. Sometimes, when you have to wait, the urge to have that plant passes or wanes or is replaced by, fickleness of it all, another must-have that presents itself. But not so with Dianthus cruentus.
Having waited, in a slightly pig headed way, I bought seed and planted it in late summer 2014. The tiniest seedlings you will ever see appeared and only seemed to grow by the smallest amount. But, by March last year, small as they were, I had a hunch that they would be better in the sharply drained, stony, sunny position that they love, than sitting in my semi-shaded open barn. So I planted them out, with stick markers, feeling as if I was performing some kind of micro-surgery.
From the garden point of view, what are it’s merits? A tufty, grassy bottom is not much to write home about, and it isn’t big, and though it might spread, nothing yet on that front. No, it truly is the colour- which is an electric red, just as Verbena bonariensis is an electric purple. It is so electric that only 2 or 3 plants light up a planting, in fact, dotted about, they are like little red neons.
Which is exactly how Cleve West used them, only a handful of plants, but they shot through his already superb planting and electrified it. Of course, I loved all the rest too, the tumbled pillars and the wild, hot climate planting, as if you had just stumbled upon some Roman ruins abandoned somewhere in North Africa.
Back to the merits of the case. The plant is tough, only a wet, shady spot would deter it, I think. Totally hardy, coping with ease with bone-dry conditions, it just really flowers only in late spring/early summer for a few weeks, that is the only serious downside. So, if you want that ruby colour, but without the electricity, throughout the summer, you could mingle it with Knautia macedonica, a bit taller and flowering non-stop, just watch out for the self-seeding Knautia as it does do global.
I adore them both. By the way, I would beg to disagree with Crocus about the soil conditions required. I would say, stony, poor, dry and impoverished rather than rich. And this year? The small plants are already the size of one fist or two, and are looking great. Last year’s seedlings are in the micro-surgery stage but will go in the ground soon. Can’t wait.