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Know Your Roots: The Dahlia

The summer months seem to produce the most beautiful flowers, however, there are plenty of late bloomers just as eye-catching; namely the Dahlia. Typically planted in August, the Dahlia offers gorgeous blooms that stay full until first frost. The flower has long been a favorite among gardeners for its seemingly endless varieties and for how quickly it grows.

Photo by RHS.

Native to Mexico, the Dahlia was originally used as a food crop; its roots harvested and consumed by indigenous people of the region. Aztecs used the flower’s hollow stem as water pipes and makeshift vials for medicine. The Dahlia would remain exclusive to Mexico for hundreds of years before being introduced to Europe in the late eighteenth century. Vicente Cervantes, the Botanical Gardens Director of Mexico City, wanted to play his part in the global effort to name and catalog our planets plants. It was common practice to send plants between countries, not only for research but to preserve the different species, so Cervantes sent Dahlia specimens to the Royal Gardens Director of Madrid, Antonio Jose Cavanilles.  Antonio was able to successfully grow the flower in Spanish soil, naming it “Dahlia” after Ander Dahl, a Swedish botanist who studied under the “father of modern taxonomy” Carolus Linnaeus.

From Spain, the flower traveled all over Europe; seeds were sent to Italy, France, the Netherlands, England, Germany, Switzerland, etc. The Dahlia went on to become one of the most cultivated flowers of all time, spreading its roots all over Europe and eventually to gardens around the world. To date, there are over 40 different species of the Dahlia and over 50,000 registered varieties in a plethora of shapes and colors. Oddly enough, you won’t ever find a blue Dahlia. Breeders have tried to produce the blue hue for centuries, only achieving variations of purple, mauve and lilac. To this day, a blue Dahlia has never been created.

Even though many people refer to them as bulbs, the Dahlia’s roots are actually potato-like tubers. These thick tubers sponge up nutrients, prompting the Dahlia’s hollow stems to sprout directly from the root. When planting Dahlias be sure to dig your holes deep and work in a nice mix of fertilizer and compost. They don’t need much time to grow, but they do need space so be aware of which variety you’re planting and space accordingly. Most Dahlias have to be staked and tied off as they grow, otherwise the weight of the quick growing flowers will be too much for the hollow stems to bear. Enjoy your beautiful Dahlias until the first frost when the flower dies out; leaving behind its nutrient packed tubers to be collected and planted the following year. Cut the stems a few inches above the tuber, wash the dirt off, and let them dry out in the sun. Note: Be sure to label your tubers if you have multiple varieties. After your tubers are dry put them in a paper bag (not plastic) with peat moss or sawdust and store them in a cool spot.

The Dahlia offers an abundance of different shapes, colors, and sizes to choose from; ranging from a few inches tall to the “Dinnerplate” variety which produces a flower that’s 10-12 inches in diameter. It’s a no-brainer this versatile flower has been celebrated all around the world, leading to many Dahlia shows and organizations. The American Dahlia Society has been working to provide information and promote interest in the Dahlia for over a hundred years. They are made up of over 70 local societies across the United States and Canada, each having their own shows and events. The ADS also holds a national Dahlia show each year, where gardeners can showcase their best flowers. If you also share a passion for the amazing Dahlia, or want to attend a local show, click the link here.


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