Friday, August 9, 2013

Hunting Pinks


The ragged pink shown above, also known as Seguieri’s pink or broad-leaved pink, is native to southwestern Europe. This prettily fringed, or “pinked,” flower is one of three species of dianthus depicted in the Unicorn Tapestries. But is this dianthus, grown from seed just this year, the wild pink depicted in the detail from The Hunters Enter the Woods below?

The little pink growing in a pot on the parapet in Bonnefont garden was started from seed by gardener Esme Webb, who is responsible for propagation at The Cloisters. As has been the practice here for many years, we compare what we believe to be the medieval species procured with representations of that plant in the art collection. Although the seed we obtained from a European seed house was identified as Dianthus seguieri, the single flower borne on this young plant either lacks the white blotching characteristic of this species altogether, or has blotching so minimal as to be imperceptible.

Dianthus seguieri

Judging by the photographic record, there is considerable variation in the wild forms of D. seguieri, and there are at least four recognized subspecies. The white blotching may be more or less marked, but it seems to be present in all. The exaggerated rendering of this characteristic white blotching in our tapestry was the key to Alexander & Woodward’s confident botanical identification of the plant as Seguier’s pink (see sources below).

The plant in The Hunters Enter the Woods also appears to be much larger than the pink we’ve grown, but plants in medieval art are not necessarily rendered in their true proportions, and scale is not a reliable indicator in their botanical identification. Another common name for Seguier’s pink is “broad-leaved pink.” However, the leaves of our pink are very narrow; those of the plant in the tapestry are much wider. Our specimen may be a subspecies of D. seguieri, or it may be another species altogether. Seeds are not infrequently mismarked or misidentified in the trade, and the only way to be sure to obtain seed for medieval species is to get it directly from a European botanical garden. This was the preferred practice at The Cloisters for many years, but more recent regulations for the international exchange and documentation of plant material have limited our eligibility, since we do not meet the stringent scientific criteria deemed to constitute a sister botanical garden, according to the International Plant Exchange Network and the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. We continue to identify and work with reputable commercial suppliers who specialize in seed for European wild types. (For more on seed propagation at The Cloisters, see Esm??’s post “Putting in the Seed,” October 19, 2012).

The Hunters Enter the Woods (detail)

Detail from The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495???1505. South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; Overall: 145 x 158 in. (368.3 x 401.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.1)

The genus we know as Dianthus was named by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. According to some older sources, Theophrastus, the ancient Greek “father of botany,” mentioned dianthus in his botanical treatise the Historia Plantae or Enquiry into Plants, but this identification has been discredited. Although wild pinks were native to the Mediterranean, they were not cultivated in classical antiquity, nor were they medicinally or artistically important. The pink came into its horticultural and iconographic own in the later Middle Ages. Several species of dianthus native to Europe, in addition to D. seguieri, were known, including D. plumarius, D. superbus, and D. carthusianorum. Unlike other iconographically significant medieval garden flowers???such as the lily, the iris, and the rose???the pink was not identified with any flower of the Bible. Pinks are often portrayed in the borders of fifteenth-century Books of Hours, and in tapestry. In early Netherlandish painting, a single pink is a sign of marriage, and pinks are held by both men and women in betrothal portraits. There are several examples in the Museum’s European Painting galleries, including Hans Memling’s Young Woman with a Pink.

The pinks depicted in medieval art are single flowers, like the wild forms listed above, although the colors range from white through pale and dark pinks to deep reds. Many explanations have been offered for the common name “pink”???I hold with those who believe it to derive from the characteristically “pinked” or ragged edges of the flower. “Pink” as a color term does not enter the English language until the seventeenth century, and seems to be derived from the flower, not the other way around. The vivid red of the traditional English hunting coat, which falls within the color range of the cultivated flower, may be termed “pink” for the same reason, although other derivations abound.

In addition to two species of native European pinks, Dianthus seguieri and D. superbus, both of which appear in The Hunters Enter the Woods, a large, fully doubled garden form of the clove pink, D. caryophyllus, grows near the unicorn’s enclosure in The Unicorn in Captivity. The history of this clove pink, the ancestor of our modern carnations, is complex and incomplete, and will be the subject of next week’s post.

???Deirdre Larkin


Fisher, Celia. The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library, 2007.

Galbally, John with Eileen Galbally. Carnations and Pinks for Garden and Greenhouse: Their True History and Complete Cultivation. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1997.

Hughes, Sophie. Carnations and Pinks: The Complete Guide. Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire: The Crowood Press, 1991.

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Comments (2)

  1. Ann Cannon Says:

    Thanks! I’ve grown pinks–and I’ll admit I always assumed the name came from the color–even though most of what I’ve grown have been white and/or red.

    So much fun to read your blog!

  2. John Harris Says:

    Wow, you must have done a lot of research. Amazing to know the history of such a beautiful plant, Thanks for sharing!

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