Carnation Flowers and Their Symbolic Meanings

Carnation flowers have ancient symbolic value dating back to mythological times. Perhaps best known as one of the official flowers for Mother’s Day, they traditionally symbolize love, respect, and distinction in the language of flowers. Join me as I explore the rich history and origins of the meaning of the carnation flower.

Beautiful Types of Carnation Flowers

Etymology

The term “carnation” is derived from the Latin word “carnatio” or “incarnation,” which means “fleshiness,” possibly referring to the original color of the flower or its flesh-like tone. This is linked to the Latin word “caro” or “carnis,” meaning “flesh.”

Interestingly, another perspective ties the name to the word “coronation,” due to the flower’s historical use in ceremonial crowns and garlands, reflecting its long-standing association with ceremonial occasions.

In addition, the flower’s scientific name, Dianthus, comes from the Greek words “dios” (διός), meaning “of Zeus” or “divine,” and “anthos” (ἄνθος), meaning “flower.” Thus, Dianthus can be translated as “the flower of the gods,.”

Carnations and Mother’s Day

The tradition of associating carnations with Mother’s Day dates back to the early 20th century in the United States. The custom was initiated by Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day as a recognized holiday, to honor her own mother and all mothers for their love and sacrifices.

Anna Jarvis’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had passed away in 1905, and in her memory, Anna sought to establish a day dedicated to honoring the contributions and sacrifices of mothers. In 1908, during one of the first official Mother’s Day celebrations held in Grafton, West Virginia, at a Methodist church, Anna Jarvis chose the white carnation as the emblem of the day because it was her mother’s favorite flower.

The tradition grew from there, with people wearing a white carnation to honor deceased mothers and a red or pink carnation to honor living mothers. Over time, this personal tribute expanded into a widespread custom, making carnations a popular gift for mothers worldwide on Mother’s Day.

The Victorian Langauge of Flowers

I love that the carnation flowers have carried various symbolic meanings across different cultures, including love, fascination, and distinction. The specific symbolism can vary significantly depending on the color of the carnation, which was particularly prevalent in the Victorian Language of Flowers:

White Carnations

White Carnation flowers
White Carnations

Thinking about giving someone flowers to wish her good luck? Or flowers to express pure love and affection? The white carnations are the perfect blooms.

Available all year round, white Carnations flaunt soft, tightly ruffled white blooms that smell sweet and spicy like a clove.

White Carnations also convey a message of a prosperous life. They make an ideal birthday gift to elders or someone starting something new in life.

White carnations are also the official zodiac flower for the star sign Cancer.

Red Carnations

A vase filled with Red Carnations
Red Carnations

Like the red rose, red Carnations are the ideal flower for expressing deep love and affection with a romantic gesture. These flowers display ruffled petals that add just the right texture to any arrangement. The vivid red gives a pop of color that quickly turns heads.

One of the most popular cultivars is ‘Laced Romeo’. It displays double red flowers fringed with white stems. Like other Carnations, they are fragrant and available all year round.

Pink Carnations

Pink Carnations in a vase
Pink Carnation

Exquisite pink Carnations symbolize a mother’s pure and never-ending love. Because of this symbolism, pink Carnations make the perfect flower for Mother’s Day.

They are also known to symbolize gratitude. Hence, pink Carnations are ideal if you would like to show appreciation to someone.

Yellow Carnations

Yellow Carnation flowers in bloom
Yellow Carnations

Some schools of thought link yellow Carnations (or more specifically the color yellow) to feelings of rejection and disappointment. However, this epic flower is so radiant that it would be silly to overlook it.

Some of the most recognized yellow Carnations are the ‘Clarion’ Carnations and the ‘Golden Sun’ Carnations. Dianthus caryophyllus ‘Clarion’ shows double yellow flowers atop a sturdy upright stem and silver foliage.

Religious Symbolism

Carnations hold various symbolic meanings in different religions around the world:

Christianity

Carnations have been associated with Christian symbolism, particularly in relation to the Virgin Mary. According to Christian legend, the first carnations bloomed from the tears of Mary as she wept for Jesus during his crucifixion. Pink carnations, in particular, are often used in Christian religious ceremonies and celebrations, including Mother’s Day.

Buddhism

In some traditions of Buddhism, flowers like carnations are used as offerings to represent the the cycle of birth and death.

Weddings and Funerals

Across various cultures and religions, carnations are commonly used in wedding and funeral arrangements. Their wide range of colors and long-lasting nature make them a versatile choice.

Anniversary Flowers

Carnations hold a special place in the tradition of anniversary flowers, being specifically associated with the first wedding anniversary.

Birth Month Flowers

The tradition of birth flowers is thought to have originated in ancient Rome, where flowers were given as gifts to celebrate birthdays and other special events. Each month was associated with a particular flower, believed to hold specific characteristics or powers that would be imparted to people born in that month.

Carnations are one of the official flowers of the January birth month.

Korean Culture

In Korean culture, carnations hold significant symbolic value, especially in the context of family and societal respect.

In South Korea, Parents’ Day is celebrated on May 8th each year. It’s a day to honor and thank parents for their love and sacrifices. Carnations, mainly red and pink ones, are commonly given to parents on this day.

Celebrated on May 15th, Teacher’s Day is another occasion where carnations are widely used to show respect and gratitude towards teachers.

Irish Culture

Carnations, particularly green ones, have become associated with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, particularly in the United States. St. Patrick’s Day, which is celebrated on March 17th, is a cultural and religious holiday commemorating Saint Patrick. Green carnations are not naturally occurring but are created by dyeing white carnations with green floral dye.

Fun Facts About Carnations:

Carnations are fascinating flowers with a rich history and various interesting characteristics. Here are some fun facts about them:

  1. Ancient History: Carnations are among the oldest flowers to be cultivated, with historians suggesting their cultivation dates back more than 2,000 years. They were highly valued in ancient Greek and Roman times, used in art and decor.
  2. Durable and Long-lasting: Carnations are known for their impressive longevity; even after being cut, they can last up to two weeks or more in a vase with proper care, making them a popular choice for bouquets and floral arrangements.
  3. National Symbol: The carnation is the national flower of Spain, Monaco, and Slovenia, and it holds a special place in the cultural and national celebrations of these countries.
  4. Historical Use in Medicine: In traditional herbal medicine, carnations were used for treating conditions like fevers and stomach aches. The flower’s essential oil is also used in aromatherapy and perfumery for its health benefits and fragrance.

Wrapping Up

Carnations are more than just pretty flowers. Each color of the carnation flower tells a different story. For example, red carnations are all about love and admiration, white ones stand for pure love, and pink carnations are often linked to a mother’s undying love. This makes them a favorite for many occasions, from showing love on Mother’s Day to saying thank you to teachers!

Further reading: Discover the most beautiful types of carnation flowers for your garden or next floral arrangement.

Editorial Director | andrew@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.

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