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Garden Dahlia

Plant of the Week

Garden Dahlia
Latin: Dahlia hybrida

Picture of Garden Dahlia with pink spiney flowers.

Floral fashions are quirky and unpredictable, and like the stock market, easy to chart but hard to predict.

The garden dahlia, since its introduction in European garden culture in the mid 18th Century, has had many such rises and falls in popularity and I predict it is time for another round of garden popularity for this old floral workhorse. With our new found love affair with the "big and bold" look in the flower garden, dahlias seem to fit in naturally.

Apparently the first introduction of the dahlia, a Mexican native in the sunflower family, involved a bit of mid 18th Century stealth, chicanery and smuggling. Spain forbid the live export of any of its New World natural products to other European countries in an attempt to maintain a monopolistic hold on the markets. One of the market items in demand was an insect that produced a red dye called cochineal. Apparently, a Monsieur Menoville, a Frenchman attached to the embassy, sent back to France the insects with a bunch of dahlia roots to serve as food.

The insects died but the roots arrived and were sent to Jardin du Roi. There, its curator, André Thouin, grew the plant. Thouin saw the plant, not as a flower, but as a possible fleshy rooted substitute for the potato. But the idea was never to catch on because, according to one informed taste tester, dahlia roots have a "repulsive, nauseous peppery taste which inspires equal disgust to man and beast." The plant slipped out of sight for another quarter century.

Dahlias appear to have made their official garden debut when seeds were sent in 1789 from the Mexico City Botanic Garden by the curator, Vincente Cervantes, to his friend Abbé Cavanilles, who was in charge of the Royal Gardens in Madrid. Cavanilles named the new plant in honor of Anders Dahl, a Swedish botanist who had died just two years earlier and had been trained by the famous botanist, Linnaeus. Seeds were then distributed to other European gardens and the first dahlia craze began. By 1826 a prize of 1,000 pounds was offered in England for a blue-flowered dahlia.

By the 1850s, one New York dealer listed over 300 selections in his catalog. Since then, there have been several rises and falls in dahlia popularity. It may just be time for another spurt in popularity.

The fleshy dahlia tubers are not reliably hardy in most of Arkansas and must be lifted each winter and stored where they will not freeze. Dahlias may also be grown from seed and are often sold as spring bedding plants. If the tubers of these seedlings are saved, they will be much taller the second year. Dahlias prefer fertile, well-watered garden sites in full sun. They will have scattered blooms all summer long but their peak blooming period is really the cooler days of fall.

Dahlias typically are big plants, often ranging from 3 to 5 feet tall. Flowers are available in a wide array of pastel shades and may be small single affairs three inches across to giants with blooms the size of a dinner plate. The stems of these big plants tend to be brittle so some early season staking or caging may help keep plants upright once the monstrous blooms begin appearing. They make excellent cut flowers.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - September 17, 1999


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.