Sunday, June 9, 2024


 This flower is a pink. But it is clearly not very pink.

Dianthus, pinks
pinks, genus Dianthus

Pinks, the genus Dianthus, got their common name several hundred years ago in England. The word pink is not just the name of a color. Its older meaning is of a zig-zag edge. My mother had scissors that cut the edge of a piece of cloth in a zig-zag pattern so it would not ravel, called pinking shears. 

pinks, Dianthus
pinks, Dianthus

The word pink, as in pinked, was first recorded in English in 1150. It meant to squint or narrow the eyes, and was applied to other narrow things like eyelets in sewing and then a zig-zagged edge. That, experts conclude, was the source of the name for plants in the genus Dianthus, because their petals have jagged edges, appear pinked. 

While most of my photos of pinks could be seen as pink the color, or at least cultivars of a pink flower, in fact the flowers of many pinks are red or white (There are about 340 species of Dianthus, including carnations, Dianthus caryophyllus. Carnations are native around the Mediterranean; they reached England in the Middle Ages and were called pinks for a while.) 

carnations, Dianthus caryophyllus
carnations, Dianthus caryophyllus

The word pink meaning reddish white or whitish red is one of the more recent color words added to everyday English. ("Major color word" means pink is a color that most people recognize, like blue and brown, not a word that puzzles some people, such as puce, azure, or taupe.) The earliest known use of pink as whitish red was in 1669. Today it is a standard.

(Making reading old books even more difficult, in 1400s, pink meant a yellowish green pigment for painting (a lake). That meaning is now totally obsolete.)

pinks Dianthus
pinks Dianthus

At one time, then, pinking the edges of your clothing was familiar and you just said "pale red." But clothing production moved forward. Today pinking is a poor way to stop raveling. A Google search recommended fabric glue, seam sealant, or to sew it with a serger. Furthermore, sewing has become a hobby rather than something every woman was doing for her family all the time. So many people do not know the language of sewing, let alone to pink a raveling edge.

Meanwhile, color words and everyday objects steadily changed. Linguists find a continual expansion of major color words in European languages, from just red, black, and white in Roman times to our red, yellow, orange, pink, green, blue, purple, brown, gray, black, white (have I forgotten some you use daily?). How did they live without words for brown or green? Well, they had them, but they did not have much need of them. Up until the last couple 100 years, paints washed off pretty quickly and paint, or dye from plants, was pretty much the only way to color an object. Thus, most things were the color of their materials, walnut chairs were walnut-colored, slate roofs were slate-colored, things dyed with madder were madder-colored (orange red). You could use a color word, but the material usually provided even more information. Those are strawberry leaves, not just green leaves. 

Paints got better and we figured out how to color the materials before creating the item. Now you shop for chairs and point out the red one, or the pink one, to distinguish it from identical chairs of yellow and orange plastic. Same with the aniline dyes that color cloth; they give us an amazing array of colors, not just madder red and dyers' mulberry yellow. We need the color words and so our language expands, to tan and teal and chartreuse.

Pink flowers make sense to us, and pink doesn't direct you to a jagged edge. Language evolves.

Dianthus, pinks
these are easy, both pink and pinked

Which brings up Indian pinks, Spigelia marilandica, an American wildflower in the plant family Loganiaceae. The only other well-known plant in the Loganiaceae is Strychnos, from which we get the poison strychnine. It is not closely related to Dianthus which are in the carnation family, Caryophyllaceae, and does not look much like any the Dianthus species. It is furthermore, not at all pink flowered (photo below). That makes the shared common name a puzzle. Websites and books generally explain the name Indian pink as a form of pink-root. However, Indian pinks' roots are not noticeably pinkish. Some plants, madder (Rubia tinctoria) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) for example, have distinctly reddish roots, not Indian pinks. Indian pinks were used medicinally by Native Americas to expel intestinal worms and colonists in the Eastern U.S. used it in the same way; it is quite poisonous however. The plant was sent to England by English gardener John Evelyn (1620-1706) who called it Indian pinks and pinkroot. Nobody is quite sure why. He lived long enough ago that he might have meant either zigzag edges, which they certainly have, or pink-colored roots, which they don't have. 

Indian pinks, Spigelia marilandica,
 Indian pinks, Spigelia marilandica

Indian pinks, Spigelia marilandica,
 Indian pinks, Spigelia marilandica

A confusing set of names. 

Furthermore, from before 1664 through to today, Indian pink in England means Dianthus chinensis. These are called rainbow pinks or China pinks in the U.S. The English name is one of those generalizations, where popular culture called anything from Asia, Indian. Curiously, the Oxford English Dictionary's quote of Dianthus chinensis as Indian pinks is from John Evelyn in his book Sylva. He is the same person credited with calling Spigelia marilandica, Indian pinks and pinkroot. Evelyn was an important gardener and garden writer (wikipedia biography). I can find exactly where he wrote about Dianthus chinensis, I cannot find the exact quote he wrote about Spigelia marilandica. Shared common names are frequent enough that perhaps he called both by the same common name and didn't worry about it, as I do with coneflowers. 

All these pinks-that-are-not-colored-pink are pretty plants. Just don't expect them to have pink flowers. 

Comments and corrections welcome.


Crawford, B. 2024 Spigelia marilandica—a Plant with Tropical Flair. New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Rutgers  link Accessed 6/7/24.

Gruenwald, J., T. Brendler and C. Janicke, editors. 2007. PDR for Herbal Medicines. 4th edition. Thomson Publishing, Montevale, NJ. 

Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

"Pink" (noun, verb) Oxford English Dictionary. (Online, via University of Nebraska) Accessed 6/5/24.

Kathy Keeler
A Wandering Botanist

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