Carnation Flowers Meaning And Symbolism

Carnations, or Dianthus caryophyllus, are the 2nd most popular cut flower in the world after roses. People give each other carnation flowers for a range of different reasons. They symbolize many different things across various cultures, and the different colors all have unique meanings.

Carnations are associated with love, distinction, and fascination. They are a symbol of maternal love. White carnations are used to commemorate the Dutch veterans of WW2. Red carnations symbolize the labor movement and socialism, and purple carnations are traditional funeral flowers in France.

These beautiful, frilly-petalled flowers are present in ancient Greek mythology and have taken on a range of cultural meanings over the centuries. Here, we take a look at the meaning and symbolism of carnation flowers.

What Is The Meaning And Symbolism Of Carnation Flowers?

Carl Linnaeus named this flower Dianthus caryophyllus in the first volume of his seminal work, Species Plantarum, published in 1753. However, the name goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

The Greek botanist, Theophrastus, coined the word “dianthus”, which is a combination of the words “dios” and “anthos”, meaning divine flower. In Greek mythology, carnations are known as the flower of the gods.

The name “carnation” originates from the root word “carnis” which means flesh in Latin. This is because before these flowers were cultivated and hybridized, they were all pale, peachy-pink – the color of skin. In the Roman Catholic church, carnation flowers were associated with the concept of incarnation – God embodied in the flesh as Jesus Christ.

One of the most popular stories involving carnation flowers comes from the early Christian belief that as Jesus was carried to the cross, the tears from his mother Mary’s eyes caused carnations to bloom where they fell. This is why carnations are associated with maternal love.

The official flower of Mother’s Day is the carnation. The woman who invented Mother’s Day in 1907, Ann Jarvis, chose carnations because they are a symbol of a mother’s love, but also because they were her own mother’s favorite flower.

In the 1990s, carnations became synonymous with exams. At the University of Oxford, students would wear a white carnation to their first exam, pink ones to exams in between, and a red one for their final exam. Today, these flowers are still given to students to wish them good luck with their exams.

Carnations have risen right to the top of cultural significance in Spain, Slovenia, and Monaco, where it is the official national flower.

They are also the state of Ohio’s official flower. Ohio adopted the red carnation as their state flower in 1904 to honor the late President William McKinley, who famously wore them on his lapel.

Carnations are the traditional flower for a couple’s first wedding anniversary, symbolizing commitment and love. They are also the birth flower for those born in January.

What Do Different Carnation Colors Mean?

Today, carnations have been cultivated and hybridized to come in every color of the rainbow. Each color has come to symbolize different things and is given for distinct reasons:

  • Pink carnations are a symbol of gratitude and never forgetting a person and their actions.
  • Light red carnations are a symbol of admiration and longing.
  • Red carnations symbolize deep affection and romantic love. They are also a symbol of the labor movement and socialism and are worn on May Day.
  • White carnations are a symbol of motherly love, purity, sweetness, and luck. In the Netherlands, they commemorate the veterans who fought in the resistance during WW2.
  • Green carnations symbolize good luck and are associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

Not all carnations are symbolic of positive traits.

  • Yellow carnations symbolize of rejection and disappointment.
  • Purple carnations are symbolic of capriciousness or being fickle. However, in France, purple carnations are a traditional flower for funerals.
  • White carnations with stripes convey the sentiment of unrequited love.

Carnations In Greek Mythology

Carnation flowers are present in ancient Greek mythology. Many people believe that they got their scientific name, Dianthus, from the story of the Greek goddess Diana.

As the myth goes, Diana, goddess of the hunt, was on her way back from an unsuccessful hunting trip when she came across a shepherd playing the flute.

She became enraged, blaming the man and his music for her unsuccessful hunt. In the heat of her rage, she pulled his eyes from his head and threw them to the ground.

When Diana had calmed down, she regretted what she had done to the man. She saw that red carnations had grown in the place where she tossed his eyes.

This is how carnation flowers came to symbolize the spilling of innocent blood.

When To Give Someone Carnation Flowers

Considering all the different meanings that different cultures around the world ascribe to carnations, one can gift a person a bunch of carnations on a variety of occasions.

  • Treat your mom to a bunch of white carnations on Mother’s Day.
  • Give your partner a bunch of red carnations on your first wedding anniversary to remind them of your love and commitment.
  • A bunch of pink carnations will express your deep gratitude to a friend.
  • If your partner is far away, or you are in a long-distance relationship, send them a bunch of light red carnations to symbolize your longing for them.
  • Give a white, pink, or red carnation to your children when they are writing exams to remind them of your support and wish them good luck.

Medicinal Uses Of Carnation Flowers

Besides the meanings that carnation flowers have taken on in history and literature, they have been used as a medicinal herb for centuries.

Brewed into a tea, carnations are believed to help relieve people of anxiety and stress and restore their energy. Carnation tea has also traditionally been used to treat gastrointestinal pain and fever.

Carnation oil has been used as a beauty product. It is thought to treat a range of skin conditions, as well as moisturize the skin and reduce wrinkles.


Considering all the different symbolic meanings that carnation flowers have, it is no wonder that they are one of the world’s most popular cut flowers. They have a fascinating, rich history, spanning from ancient Greek mythology to early Christian writings and beyond into the 20th century.

Carnation flowers are a symbol of love, distinction, and fascination. No matter what message you want to convey with flowers, you are sure to find a colorful carnation that captures your sentiment.