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DAHLIAS NOT NEW TO GARDENS

written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Dahlias are a wonderful addition to any garden, but few gardeners know that this flower’s cultivation dates back to the days of the Aztec civilization. The Aztec noble class had many gardens including ones devoted to just ornamental plants and flowers. Cultivated many centuries ago by the Aztec society, dahlias are native to Mexico and Central America.

In 1570, King Phillip II of Spain sent his personal physician, Francisco Hernandez, to Mexico with a commission to report on the natural history of the lands. After spending seven years in Mexico, Hernandez returned to Spain and endeavored to get his records published. He died in 1578 before he accomplished this. It was not until1651 that his book was finally published. It was in this book that drawings of dahlias first appeared.

Later, in 1789, dahlias reappeared on the horticultural scene. That was when the director of the Botanical Garden in Mexico City sent some dahlia plant parts to Antonio Jose Cavarilles who was with the Royal Gardens of Madrid in Spain. Cavarilles grew these parts into plants of three different species which he named Dahlia pinnata, Dahlia rosea, and Dahlia coccinea. These three dahlias were shared with the rest of Europe in the 1800

s. Before long, the first modern dahlia hybrid, a cross between two of these species, yielded an easy-to-grow plant that rapidly found favor in both European and American gardens.

As they say.. . the rest is history! Because dahlias are easy to breed, thousands of cultivated varieties were developed in the next century, with 14,000 recognized named cultivars by 1936. Today there are over 50,000 cultivars, all the result of the original crosses between two or three of those original dahlia species named by Cavarilles. There are so many choices!

When I grow dahlias, I like to pick the annual bedding plant types. They’re so easy to grow. However, I can remember my grandfather growing dahlias with much larger flowers. He kept these from year to year by digging up the tubers in the fall, storing them over the winter, and then dividing and replanting them in the spring. The large flowered and prettiest dahlias are grown from tubers, underground stems that serve as carbohydrate storage organs for the plants. Potatoes are also tubers. Like potatoes, dahlia tubers have “eyes” or buds.

Growing dahlias from tubers like my grandfather takes extra effort on the part of gardeners, but the extra work is worth it. The flowers range from white to almost every color of the rainbow including yellow, orange, pink, dark pink, red, dark red, lavender, purple, bronze, flame, light blends, dark blends, variegated, and bicolor. There’s also a diversity of flower types, with eighteen recognized shapes including ball, miniature ball, pompon, waterlily, peony, anemone,

cactus, single, and more. You can see some lovely dahlias this summer in the Formal Garden in the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden in Kennewick. These are lovingly dug and stored in the fall and then divided and replanted in the spring by the Master Gardeners.

The Northwest is home to a number of commercial dahlia growers. One of the most well known is Swan Island Dahlias in Canby, Orgeon. I once visited Swan Island Dahlias in late summer when the plants were in flower. Since they have over 40 acres of dahlias, it was like being in an ocean of color. They have a dahlia festival every year where you can celebrate the dahlia, view the fields of gorgeous flowers, and even buy cut dahlias. You can reach Swan Island Dahlias at 800-410-6540 or www.dahlias.com. Other NW dahlia growers include:

Alpen Gardens in Gaston, OR at 503- 662-3951 or www.alpengardens.com,

Clack’s Dahlia Patch in Myrtle Creek, OR at 541- 863-4501 or www.cruger.com/cddahlia.html,

Connell’s Dahlias in Tacoma, WA at 253- 531-0292 or www.connells-dahlias.com,

Dan’s Dahlias, in Oakville, WA at 360-482-2406 or www.dansdahlias.com

Published: 2/21/2009 12:04 PM

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