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"All in the downs the fleet was moored, banners waving in the wind.
When Black-eyed Susan came aboard, and eyed the burly men.
‘Tell me ye sailors, tell me true, if my Sweet William sails with you.’
~ Black Eyed Susan, John Gay, 1720
April showers bring May flowers! Sweet Williams, one of the most delicate of dianthus flowers are often companioned in old-fashioned gardens with the Black-eyed Susan, a pairing that is romantically echoed in the 18th century poem, "Black Eyed Susan," by John Gay. In this ballad, a young maiden named Black-eyed Susan boards a ship in the harbor to find her lover, William for a final and bittersweet farewell before his ship sets sail to foreign shores and the ever-present risk of trouble on the high seas. After pledging their constancy to each other, the ship's captain bids her leave the ship, and William's last image is Black-eyed Susan waving farewell from the small boat rowing her back to land. Sweet William flowers are edible and attract bees, birds, and butterflies. In the Victorian language of flowers, Sweet Williams are associated with gallantry. 🌸
By designer Carol A.L. Martin, this tartan pays tributes to the beautiful colors in this favourite of old-fashioned garden flowers.
Sweet William is a form of dianthus barbatus, also more commonly known as carnations, or pinks.
Many legends purport to explain how Sweet William acquired its English common name, although none is verified.
The English botanist John Gerard referred to Dianthus barbatus as "Sweete Williams" in his garden catalogue of 1596. Some have speculated that the flower was named after Gerard's contemporary, William Shakespeare. It is also said to be named after Saint William of York or after William the Conqueror. Another etymological derivation is that William is a corruption of the French oillet, meaning "little eye".
Although some believe this flower to be named for William, Duke of Cumberland, this story is untrue and the result of confusion. The Duke's victory at the Battle of Culloden and his generally brutal treatment of the king's enemies, led to the noxious ragword being referred to as "stinking Billy", not the delicate and faintly scented Sweet William.
The name Sweet William occurs in several 17th century ballads, one of which also links the Black-eyed Susan flower to a common pairing in gardens. Click the flowers for a version of one of these many ballads.