Se­crets of this ever-chang­ing flower re­vealed

Amateur Gardening - - This Week In Gar­den­ing -

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.

Sta­tus sym­bols

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

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