Colorado Master Gardeners: Sweet sweet William |

Colorado Master Gardeners: Sweet sweet William

The CSU Master Gardeners are available to answer questions from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Thursday at the Extension Office. Stop by 136 Sixth Street, call 970-870-5241, or email

It’s that time in the summer when my Sweet William starts to fade. I will miss the wonderful colors and the pleasant fragrance it brings to my garden. The flowers, which are 2 to 4 inches in diameter, are actually a dense cluster of small flowers in white, soft pinks and striking magenta, and some have variegated patterns of pink and white.

My plants have grown up to 20 inches tall and have attractive, slender leaves. At this stage, the blooms are turning brown, and the stems are falling over. They are no longer pretty but require no work on my part to ensure their return next year. I may experiment to see if they will bloom again: According to research by CSU Cooperative Extension’s Plant Environmental Research Center, deadheading may result in another bloom in September. We will see.

Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) is a member of the carnation, or pink, family (caryophyllaceae), pink from the Latin word “pinct,” referring to the pinked or scalloped edges of its flower petals. The native variety of Dianthus barbatus originated in the mountains of southern Europe and Asia and produces red and white flowers. Thousands of dianthus cultivars are now available, offering flowers in many colors — including white, pink, red and yellow — and in a variety of flower shapes and color patterns. A biennial, or short-lived perennial, it readily self-seeds and produces offspring that may flower in a different color.

My Sweet William was planted several years ago by the previous homeowner, alongside penstemons, lupines and iris. It has flourished in the partly shaded and sometimes-watered flowerbed, even spreading here and there in the lawn. Since my variety is non-native (not red and white), I thought it would be of no interest to pollinators, and I considered replacing it with a native plant.

Plants that don’t attract native insects and require pruning, such as my iris, have fallen, in my estimation, even when they are visually appealing. But unlike iris, which produces masses of leaves that need to be removed at summer’s end, Sweet William is very low-maintenance. So, instead, I have been keeping an eye on my plants, hoping to see a bee or a butterfly or a hummingbird land on them. And, I have been rewarded. Apparently, the swallowtail butterfly feeds on the nectar of Sweet William, as do hummingbirds. Unfortunately, the hummingbirds have been too quick to photograph. So my Sweet William will stay.

While native plants are a better choice for wildlife — better adapted to the area, less likely to be invasive and more likely to offer greater benefits to pollinators in terms of nectar quality, pollen count and food for larva — Sweet William has a place in my garden. It blooms when butterflies and hummingbirds are out and about searching for a nectar meal. It does not appear on lists for best plants for bees or caterpillars, so I need to be sure to encourage native pollinator plants for them. Last, since it propagates easily, a mass planting of Sweet William is planned for next summer, to signal to pollinators that my garden is a great place to visit. Sweet William is a good choice for all gardens in our community.

For another article about the species, visit For more information about attracting butterflies, visit

Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.

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