The pho­to­genic dahlia stages a come­back, and steals the show

Pawtucket Times - - HOME & GARDEN - By ADRIAN HIG­GINS

I was stand­ing along the sub­ur­ban Washington water­front a cou­ple of years ago when a Span­ish galleon showed up, prov­ing once again that if you wait long enough, ev­ery­thing comes full cir­cle.

This is es­pe­cially true in the gar­den­ing world. House­plants, em­braced by hir­sute, plaid-draped baby boomers in the 1970s, fell into ob­scu­rity be­fore be­ing res­cued in this cen­tury by mil­len­ni­als.

Suc­cu­lents were once the do­main of rock-gar­den en­thu­si­asts – there is no more es­o­teric a sub­set of gar­den­ers – but are now an es­sen­tial part of con­tem­po­rary ur­ban life. Old gar­den roses are back and so is kale. What will be next? Car­na­tions, snap­drag­ons, Ken­tucky blue­grass? The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less.

The dahlia, a ten­der peren­nial from the high plains of Mex­ico, sent Euro­peans into a frenzy of de­light when it showed up in the Old World, quite pos­si­bly aboard Span­ish galleons. The Em­press Joséphine, known for her love of roses, was crazy, too, for dahlias. The

Euro­pean ma­nia led to the breed­ing of a wide range of dahlias, in color, form and size, and soon grow­ers were clas­si­fy­ing this cor­nu­copia so that they could do what all flower fanciers of a sim­pler age liked to do: Show them off. Dahlia shows proved to the pub­lic what an amaz­ing flower the dahlia had be­come in the hands of de­voted hob­by­ists.

Dahlias also have had a long pres­ence in the gar­den, the small ones tucked be­tween other peren­ni­als, the tall ones staked as sen­tinels in the bor­der.

In our own time, when peren­ni­als and grasses have come to the fore, dahlias seemed to re­cede into the past, like laven­der wa­ter, pedal cars and ma­hogany wardrobes. Now we have come to see that few other flow­ers are so lux­u­ri­ant in their color, which in­cludes shades of or­ange, red, bur­gundy and yel­low. The darker the hue, the more in­tense it seems to be.

The cut-flower world, in­her­ently pho­to­genic and made for so­cial me­dia, has been given an enor­mous boost on photo-driven dig­i­tal plat­forms in re­cent years. Noth­ing in Oc­to­ber is as vivid as a bou­quet of dahlias. Dahlias are back.

But in one sense, they never left. The other Fri­day night, I found my­self at Brook­side Gar­dens in the Washington sub­urb of Wheaton, Mary­land, with a hand­ful of dahlia fanciers get­ting ready for the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Dahlia So­ci­ety’s an­nual show. Its 83rd an­nual show. Most of the grow­ers were get­ting on a bit, but the mood was cheer­ful, filled with an­tic­i­pa­tion of the week­end, and not in the least mori­bund (if you dis­count the wall plaques and pho­tos of four mem­bers who had passed on since the last show).

The youngest ex­hibitor I found was Christa Carig­nan, 46. She put 20 plants in her small sub­ur­ban Rockville gar­den in May, in raised beds orig­i­nally built for veg­eta­bles. She has been hit­ting dahlia shows af­ter see­ing show dahlias for the first time last year. This is al­ways an eye-opener to the novice be­cause of the un­ex­pected sizes and forms, in­clud­ing ball types that look like pa­per Christ­mas tree or­na­ments, spiky “cac­tus” blooms and those as wide as your head. (The Amer­i­can Dahlia So­ci­ety rec­og­nizes 21 forms in sizes from less than two inches across to more than 10 inches.)

For Carig­nan, the dahlias are an ex­ten­sion of the wild­flower-in­spired ar­range­ments she has been mak­ing, ones that are pop­u­lar with gar­den­ers of her gen­er­a­tion and younger. “I share my dahlias on Face­book with friends and fam­ily,” she said, “Peo­ple my age and younger think it’s awe­some.”

Se­ri­ous hob­by­ists might have more than 200 plants in their gar­dens, grow­ing in care­fully pre­pared beds and sup­ported by hor­i­zon­tally strung net­ting. It’s more farm­ing than gar­den­ing. If you grow five of one va­ri­ety in­stead of one, the chances are good you will have a per­fectly formed and pris­tine flower stem at show time. The re­jects might be too slug-eaten or at the wrong stage of de­vel­op­ment. If the cen­ter of an oth­er­wise im­mac­u­late dahlia is open – “blown” in grower par­lance – you might as well stay home.

An­other ex­hibitor, re­tiree Ber­nadette Rager, of Ol­ney, Mary­land, could be seen coo­ing over her blood-red, dec­o­ra­tive-type dahlia named Black Beauty. I asked her how much time she de­votes to her dahlias, and the an­swer gave some clues as to why fanciers tend to wait un­til later in life to tackle this flower.

“I spend an hour a day from April to the first frost. And then you have to put [the tu­bers] away in the win­ter and check them ev­ery week” for rot­ting in stor­age.

“All sum­mer, you can’t go on va­ca­tion be­cause you can’t leave them.”

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