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Dahlias: Love ‘em or Leave ‘em? Or, Historical Disagreements and Descriptions with Modern-Day Ramifications for Tuberous Plant Culture: Part I*

Dahlia atropurpurea in its more purple guise.

Dahlias have been on my mind lately. This fall, I had a noticeable gap in fall color. My young blueberry bushes had a spectacular range of leaf-colors, better than I’d hoped, ranging from dull matte wine-red to yellow and red with bits of flame in it.

But deer had pruned my “Emperor of China” chrysanthemums to the ground, and my late-blooming sweet peas were about the only other fall color I got. When my Old House Gardens catalogue arrived, I fell victim to the beautiful shapes and colors of their heirloom dahlias, and ordered six.

Naturally, when I got to my favorite historical library, where garden books from the eighteen hundreds are on the open shelves for all to peruse, I turned to books and sections on books about dahlias.

I love historical garden books. The first one I picked up, Joseph Breck’s** Flower Garden, published in 1851, starts each plant section with a quotation of poetry, if one is available. Attributions aren’t given; you get the feeling that these are poets you’re just supposed to know, the way we know quotes from Beatles songs and TV shows.

The poetic heading for Breck’s dahlia section is:

“In queenly elegance the Dahlia stands,
And waves her coronet.”

But the laudatory poetry ends at the first sentence of prose:

“The Dahlia is a native of Mexico, found on the table lands of that country, and I have sometimes wished it had been let alone there, ‘to waste its sweets on the desert air.’ It is so capricious in its flowering, so subject to the ravages of insects, so much influenced by too much heat, or too much dryess, or too much wet; and then, just as it begins to give promise of abundant bloom, having escaped all the casualties of the season, is cut down by the frost, and becomes a blackened, hideous object in the garden;, that, after many disappointed hopes, I have been sometimes disposed to say, I would not try it again.”

Which of us has not been jilted by a plant, and retained the mixed feeling of a teenager who can’t help being attracted to someone who used to be close, but now doesn’t even deign to notice our existence?

Will disappointment be the story of my dahlias? I have tried them before, one put up a few leaves; the others disappeared.

But at this point, I’m still hopeful: not inclined to take Breck’s dim view of things:

“True it is, that, after paying extravagant prices for new sorts, I have frequently been disappointed in not having a single bloom; and what is worse, the roots may not get strength enough to stand through the winter, even with the greatest care.”

In my own garden experience, I can’t really blame the dahlias for their poor showing. I ordered them on sale, late; planted them two months later, and proceeded to abandon them completely for months. This was due to my health, which didn’t run to taking care of all the plants I greedily acquired.

But I did successfully grow one dahlia last year: the august ancestor of many, Dahlia atropurpurea, whose picture you see above. I can’t agree with Breck’s dismissal of what I assume to be the same plant (nomenclature is a chancy thing when you’re reading historical garden books; Latin names were thrown around like confetti, and not infrequently the same plant had several of them, none of which may be the one that’s used now, or even in recent times).

“It was first introduced into England in the year 1789, was but little noticed, and soon lost. It was reintroduced in 1804, then a single purple flower of not much interest.”

I loved the mahogany-purple of this dahlia, which changes with the changing light, and obliged me with more flowers than I really deserved, for I threw it in a pot with some hard-clotted compost and left it to its own devices. Since I didn’t prune it back, it grew a single slender stalk of a few feet in part sun, and while it gave me only a couple of flowers at a time, they were magnificent, and more than I could have expected.

But, like sweethearts, the same plant may be a joy to one and a disappointment to another. I can’t help feeling that Breck is prejudiced. Cultivation was my main interest in this entry, because I wanted to repeat whatever it was I did that allowed the Dahlia atropurpurea to do as well as it did.

While Breck is more straightforward in the sections about growing dahlias, notes of chagrin keep creeping in. The dahlia cultivation section of The Flower Garden leads off like this:

“Too much has been said and written about the cultivation of the Dahlia.”

About the disposal of dahlias in the garden, Breck says:

“Dahlias look best in groups, as they hide each other’s ugliness…”

Even the propagation section sounds a soft note of scorn. Breck discusses storing the roots in a cellar over the winter:

“There is no danger from rats or mice or any other creature. I never knew an animal to touch them. You could not catch an old rat even to smell of them the second time.”

When I perused the cultivation section more thoroughly, I found a useful hint which I had not seen elsewhere – and perhaps the deep-buried root of Breck’s disappointment:

“While I resided in Lancaster [Massachusetts], my garden was situated on the banks of a branch of the Nashua River. In hot weather, a damp or mist rose from the river every night, and gave my Dahlia plants a good wetting. I did not have any difficulty then with the Dahlia; it flowered in great profusion, having had nearly one hundred blooms on a plant at one time.”

I am more fortunate than Joseph Breck; when hot weather comes, I have the technology to take his tip and mist my dahlias. Whether or not this will lead to a flourishing relationship, only time will tell.

Next post: Dahlia lovers (and more confused nomenclature)

* For those of you who are wondering, why the lengthy title, my title is a pale copy of the effulgently prolix titles of the 1800s. They cover entire pages, in a show of fonts and layout that I wish I could find online today. For a full view of the glory of Breck’s title page, check out this Google books link, where you will find a photocopy.

** Yes, this is the Breck of Breck’s catalogue. While he was clearly very interested in bulbs – he has much fuller writeups on them than some of his contemporaries – he also covered the full range of plants. In those days, U.S. horticulture was in its infancy, and there was less specialization. I’m not sure how the current Breck’s catalogue came to be bulb-centric.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • catmint December 26, 2011, 4:19 am

    Dear Pomona, old friend, it is so good to get in touch again. The dahlia in that photo is stunning, I love that dark purple. Dahlias used to be fashionable when I was a girl. I got put off them because they were always planted in straight rows, and were too brightly coloured. Now you don’t see them much … I love historical books too, and have discovered there are so many you can access online. Thanks for the info, happy hols, catmint.

  • mary May 7, 2012, 5:08 am

    I have just started growing dahlias and I love your comment..Dahlias look best in groups so as to hide each others ugliness..

    I follow all the rules for growing but they please themselves what they do so now I let them now and again they surprise me with flowers of varying shapes colours and sizes.

  • Gabrielle@ flowerbulbcrazy May 17, 2012, 8:48 am

    Living in WI- Dahlias are annual here and I dont like to fuss with too many of any annuals (all the work and not returning) But I have decided that a few select Dahlias are a MUST in my summer garden. I love the full ‘shrub’ that continually sends out flowers July – October! Mixed in with other perennials is how I do them. I have not heard of many problems with them as you mentioned. I have fairly crappy clay soil, and they always do so well for me. I plant and then let them do their thing (another HUGE reason why Ill plant them: Im kinda a ‘lazy’ gardener- dont like plants I need to baby).

  • Orlando Garden Design November 13, 2012, 3:45 pm

    I love my dahlias and I think that they are beautiful in their ugliness!

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