Old-fashioned Sweet William back in favour
It is not known exactly how Sweet William got its name, but it is receiving new interest in recent times. It is thought likely the name is a derivation of the French word for carnation, oeillet, which means 'small eye'. There may be a link with gilly-flower, an old name for carnation.
Sweet William is closely related to carnations and garden pinks and has been grown for many centuries for its colourful flowers and its sweet scent. The scent is light and travels on the breeze on a warm day. The flower stems, cut and brought indoors, last well in water.
This flower comes from southern Europe where it grows wild as a short-lived perennial flower. The garden forms have larger, broader flowers and a wider colour range, although wild plants can produce variable pink, red and white forms.
Garden varieties range across red, wine, purple, pink and white and various shades of each of these colours, and many varieties exhibit banding in red or pink on a lighter background, and some have a lighter coloured 'eye' in the individual flowers.
The flower head is flat with dozens of small flowers closely packed together and carried on flower stems about 60cm tall, less when grown in poor soil, and some varieties of Sweet William have been bred with shorter stems.
While they are not the strongest of flower stems, they generally do not fall over because they support each other as a group. Occasionally, especially when grown on very rich soil, the stems can topple over. Heavy rain and wind can cause this in an exposed place.
Sweet William was a popular flower in the old cottage gardens as it was easy to grow and it produced a big, colourful show of perfumed flowers.
It grows easily from small seeds which are copiously produced, and it even self-sows.
It can be easily raised from seeds sown directly where is it to grow and thinned out, or the seedlings can be lifted and transplanted to new positions in autumn, or it can be sown in spring to flower later in summer of the same year. Choose a sunny spot, ideally at the front of a bed or border, with fertile, well-drained soil that is not too dry.
When the plant carries a big show of flowers and sets seed, it tends to weaken and wither away. If the flower stems are cut down to the basal leaves after flowering, the plants will often flower again the following year, but eventually this trick fails and new plants must be raised from seeds.