IN-DEPTH LOOK AT DAHLIAS
Secrets of this ever-changing flower revealed
Make no mistake: I’m potty about dahlias. No other flower I grow performs from the second half of summer right up until the first frosts. No other flower delivers the same rainbow of colour either, whether it’s sultry deep reds to add an ornate touch to yellow daisies, pumpkin oranges that glow against purples, or feminine pinks and whites for a softer, romantic look.
Then there are the flower shapes. Here, too, there’s a dahlia for everyone – from simple singles to petal-packed waterlilies; spiky ones that explode like fireworks, tight balls for the vase or huge decoratives that just scream flower power. You can enjoy them in the garden or put them on your allotment; as far as I’m concerned, the dahlia has it all!
I first fell for these tantalising tubers around 60 years ago. Like many a small child given pocket money, I couldn’t wait to spend it at the sweet shop. My weekly route took me past the local allotments, where chain link fencing revealed tempting glimpses of huge dinner plate dahlias in a range of lollipop colours. In the 1950s, dahlia enthusiasts produced enormous blooms by disbudding them, and those giants – grown for the show bench – were the start of my life-long love affair.
Of course, the history of the dahlia goes back much further than that. There are lots of unfounded stories about the aztecs using them for medicine and in religious rituals in the 15th and even 14th centuries. However the first illustration of a dahlia appeared in a work by the naturalist and court physician Francisco Hernandez, who was sent on expeditions to Mexico by king Philip of Spain between 1570 and 1577, in search of food and medicinal plants. He sent back dahlias but the tubers proved unpalatable to the Spanish – it is claimed that even Philip’s cattle refused to eat them.
It would be another 200 years before the dahlia emerged from South america
again. In 1789, Vicente Cervantes, who later became the director of the Mexican Botanic Garden, sent seeds to Abbe Cavanille, the director of Madrid’s Botanic Garden. It was the latter who gave dahlias their name, christening them in memory of Andreas Dahl, one of botanist Carl Linnaeus’s students.
Their introduction to Britain is thought to have been courtesy of the British Ambassador’s wife, Lady Bute, who brought home dahlia tubers from Spain in 1798. By 1804, they were popular with the rich, including the founder of the RHS, John Wedgwood. They became a status symbol and in the 1850s a single tuber could fetch £100 – a fortune at a time when the average wage was £2 a week. James Bateman of Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, now a National Trust property, was an avid collector (the garden still contains a Dahlia Walk), and some 50 years later Sir Reginald Cory staged huge dahlia trials for the RHS in the grounds of his mansion, Dyffryn House near Cardiff. Also now owned by the National Trust, this garden has planted hundreds of dahlias in the past three years or so.
Dahlias continued to be popular in the first half of the 20th century, but those dinner-plate blooms that so delighted me in my youth failed to impress the
“You can enjoy them in the garden or put them on your allotment”
“By the 1850s a single tuber could fetch £100”
majority of gardeners. By the 1980s, they were largely out of favour, a situation that David Brown, the son of a dahlia nurseryman and a member of the RHS Dahlia panel for many years, was determined to change. He set about rescuing the varieties he’d known as a child, and in doing so laid the foundation for the National Collection of Dahlias, now located near Penzance.
David joined forces with fellow enthusiast Mark Twyning, who raised dahlias from seed as a hobby. With a particular passion for single dahlias, especially ones with dark foliage, Mark named several after popular sweets – including ‘Twyning’s After Eight’ (2004) and ‘Twyning’s Revel’ (2009). These smaller-flowered singles attracted wildlife and slotted into borders easily.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, New Zealand breeder Keith Hammett also raised some excellent singles. These included the bright yellow ‘Knockout’ (syn. ‘Mystic Illusion’), pink-red ‘Dovegrove’ and ‘Magenta Star’. An RHS trial of Open-Centred Dahlias, held at RHS Wisley in 2008, helped to cement their popularity.
Once these singles found their way into gardens it was only a matter of time before they were embraced by cut-flower enthusiasts. Influential writer Sarah Raven championed dramatic dark red dahlias, which are so good to cut, leading to every other colour being planted, too. And on the RHS dahlia trial, which I judged for many years, we noticed that giant decoratives were gaining in popularity with younger gardeners (visitors voted the huge red decorative ‘Bryn Terfel’ the best). In their many forms, dahlias are riding high once more; and I, for one, hope they remain so. n
Varieties grown for cutting will certainly brighten up an allotment
Pollinators are attracted to dahlias too – especially single or semi-double varieties
Dahlias offer a hit of exuberance to take you through to the first frosts
Think pink: Dahlia ‘Preference’ lights up a mixed border