23: Spring 2009

Author: Rosemary Mitchell

Dahlias come in from the cold

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Dahlias come in from the coldRosemary Mitchell

For years dahlias have suffered from being considered ‘common’, only fit to be grown on allotments although surprisingly in the autumn, there are always buckets of cut dahlias outside greengrocers’ shops. Suitable for flower arranging but not for the garden! However things are changing and dahlias are to be seen in many influential gardens. Even Sir Roy Strong grows them, albeit in the kitchen garden, and next year they are the RHS symbol for Chelsea Show and you can’t get more fashionable than that.

The 1950s saw much breeding with many new varieties and types coming on the market. Nurseries such as Ayletts, the Mecca of dahlia aficionados, were the leaders of dahlia breeding programmes. They also mounted wonderfully spectacular displays at RHS shows and other regional flower shows. Slowly, gardeners grew tired of the annual lifting of tubers, winter storage and then in the spring taking cuttings or replanting tubers. There was always the need to stake and to protect from slugs in the early summer and earwigs when the flowers were at their peak. They are also were ridiculed in the phase of ‘U’ and ‘Non U’ – definitely working class.

No respectable gardener would be seen growing dahlias especially when heathers, conifers and ground cover plants replaced them as labour-saving plants. A few maintained their love for dahlias, the stunning shows remained and some historic houses, including Anglesey Abbey, kept their dahlia beds.

About fifteen years ago the dark leafed ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, followed by ‘Bednall Beauty’, both of which had been old favourites, became the rage and were to be seen in notable gardens. D. coccinea and other species dahlias also became acceptable.

Three trends have helped to bring dahlias back into common usage. First, the desire to extend the flowering period in the garden, and dahlias will flower well into October. Second, the fashion, led by Christopher Lloyd, for hot beds which are usually at their peak from August to October. Dahlias provide the strong reds and oranges, many with dark leaves. The magentas and purples make good clashing combinations with the yellows of helianthus and rudbeckias. Third, climate warming has meant that chances of an early frost have diminished.

Evidence of dahlia rehabilitation has been the articles in the gardening press this year. The trials of dahlias by Sarah Raven in Gardeners’ World must have introduced many younger gardeners to these glorious colourful flowers. At the HPS Weekend this year, we saw a large bed planted only with the ‘Bishop’, mixed dahlias in a hot autumn bed and clumps of dahlias in a long deep herbaceous border. Bob Brown’s catalogue includes fifty percent more dahlias this year than six years ago.

Dahlias are one of the few plants with virtually a complete range of colour, apart from blue, which makes them very easy to place. They have a wide range of flower shape and height ranging from 15 cms to one and a half metres. So think about growing dahlias next year, you might be delighted with the result.

First published in the West Midlands Group Newsletter 2007
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 23
© Copyright for this article: Rosemary Mitchell

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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