By Audrey Stallsmith
They brought me a quilled, yellow dahlia,
Flung out of a pale green stalk.
Round, ripe gold
Meticulously frilled and flaming,
A fire-ball of proclamation:
Although the dahlia may have developed into the bold and cosmopolitan beauty portrayed above, she started out as a much more shy and slender young thing in the hills of Mexico. As many as thirty-five different species of the flower are native there and in Central America.
In 1788 Charles III dispatched five scientists to explore the plant-life of Mexico. One member of that commission, Vincentes Cervantes, sent wildflower seeds back to Antonio Cavanilles, a staff-member of Madrid's Royal Botanic Garden.
From those seeds Cavanilles grew three of the species types--coccinea ("scarlet"), pinnata ("feathered"), and rosea ("rose-colored")--of a plant he dubbed "dahlia" in honor of Swedish botanist Andreas Dahl. The new find spread quickly throughout Europe, though it was initially known as Georgina in Germany and Russia.
The Empress Josephine was one of the first dahlia enthusiasts. But--as she reportedly destroyed all of her plants in a fit of rage after members of her court tried to steal some--we will have to conclude that it was their rarity which most appealed to her. And that didn't last long.
By 1936 the plant-world had produced 14,000 dahlia cultivars. Perhaps it was the flower's penchant for change that caused it stand for "instability" in the Language of Flowers.
The Aztecs had reportedly used the dahlia to treat epilepsy, applied the petals as poultices, and employed the tall hollow stems of the tree type (imperialis) as water-canes. Although some Old World botanists hoped that the tubers might become a food crop like potatoes, baked or mashed dahlias never caught on!
Because those tubers are high in inulin, however, they were used to produce one of the first sugar substitutes for diabetics. An extract from the roasted tubers, called dacopa, has also been marketed as a coffee substitute.
Today's dahlias come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, and are even thought to resemble other flowers, as there are "peony," "chrysanth," "carnation," "tulip," "orchid," and "waterlily" types. Those gardeners who don't like flashy may want to investigate the smaller-flowered classes, such as ball and pompom.
Dahlias can be frustrating to grow in the north, as they are generally just coming into full bloom when frost slaughters them. But we do have to admit that they take summer out in a blaze of glory!
Dahlia pinnata plate is an 1827 illustration by the famed botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute.