For many years I have seen the buckets of bunches of Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus) at the Marks & Spencer checkouts and thought maybe one day I would buy some – although I usually prefer big yellow chrysanthemums or roses.
Last week I bought some. I had hoped for the heady nostalgic spicy smell I recalled from childhood, when my “Auntie” Margaret grew them in her garden and gave me fresh little bunches. Her lovely second husband was called William (Bill) Baldwin and she sometimes called him Sweet William.
But back to the M&S bouquet. What a disappointment! Nothing! Hardly a whiff of perfume. Is it because they are stale? Or have the plant breeders knocked the odour out of them?
They are of course related to pinks and carnations, which probably also don’t smell the way they used to. Neither do tomatoes – unless you buy them “on the vine”. And a friend of mine at work pointed out something I didn’t know – Cox’s orange pippin apples don’t rattle any more…
I wonder about the all-white bouquet of Princess Catherine earlier this year, which I think contained Sweet William as a token of her new husband Prince William, but I wonder if her flowers were strongly perfumed – they should have been, as there were also lilies of the valley in there.
We may ask who was the William the flower was named after? Wikipedia has many theories but the fact it was already called “Sweete Williams” by the English botanist John Gerard in 1596 rules out some of them.
Named after William Shakespeare? Unlikely – it was probably one of those lovely etymological corruptions – from the French oillet (pronounced something like “wallay” or “”willey”), meaning “little eye”…