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'Forecourt flowers' are pick of the bunch again

Once deeply out of fashion, carnations are blooming into style

If you are the sort of person who buys garage flowers as a way of saying sorry for being drunk, late, forgetful or all three, this will cheer you up. Carnations are back in vogue.

The flowers – deeply unfashionable for decades and beloved of the bargain bouquet-buyer – are now making red-carpet appearances on catwalks and corsages, not to mention fluttering their petals in some of the most spectacular and high-profile floral displays.

The trend was first spotted by the Wall Street Journal, whose sharp-eyed fashion scribes noticed that carnation prints featured prominently in American designer Oscar de la Renta's spring-summer 2011 show. Mr De la Renta was born in the Dominican Republic, but studied art in Spain, where the carnation is the national flower.

Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City and New York trend-setter, wore a bright magenta carnation as a corsage to the opening of a Broadway show last year.

And Rebel Rebel, the achingly chic London florists whose clients include Dior, Lancome and Agent Provocateur, used carnations in their "eye" display for the Big Brother 2010 television series, as well as for the Bafta awards ceremony.

Dianthus caryophyllus, the ancestor of the florist carnation, originated in the southern Mediterranean and requires well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil and full sun. Originally, the flower was a rich pinky-purple. Today, Colombia is the world's largest producer of carnations, which come in every colour except blue.

Like those other floral favourites lilies and roses, carnations have been a part of Western culture and iconography for centuries. Their botanical name comes from the Greek "dios", meaning god or Zeus, and "anthos", meaning flower. In Christian legend, they are said to have sprung up from the tears of the Virgin Mary as she watched Christ carrying the cross.

You can still buy old-fashioned greenhouse carnations from a specialist breeder such as Allwoods of Hassocks, West Sussex, and these still have the wonderful heady clove scent. However, they need to be kept under glass as they hate prolonged wet, cold conditions and require staking to stop them flopping over. It's easy to see why the commercial growers bred plants that would stand up straight and whose frilly blooms were less likely to be damaged in transit. Unfortunately, in breeding a tougher flower in a bigger range of colours, the scent disappeared.

However, as Mairead Curtin of Rebel, Rebel, points out: "Their cousins, pinks, are totally marvellous and have a heavenly scent when in season in England." Ms Curtin is a carnation convert, albeit a cautious one. "Some carnations are great, and carnations are great for some things, but I wouldn't say all carnations are good for everything. We rarely use them in bunches.

"We used them to great effect in the Big Brother eye – when you have to use a lot of tightly packed flowers with vibrant colours, carnations are just the thing because they have a big head and a thin woody stem, and are good value.

"More beautiful flowers like ranunculus are gorgeous but a total nightmare to get into floral foam. Different shades of the same colour used together look marvellous, and there is a wonderful deep, deep red called Clove which is lovely.

"On the other hand there are some truly horrid colours which we wouldn't touch with a bargepole. No matter what anyone says I refuse to believe that spray carnations will ever be in favour," she said.

Perhaps it's not such good news for the garage flower fans after all.