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The Dahlia Delight

Plant obsessions go through trends, just like the huge tulip obsession and flash trade market that was huge for a short time, then crashed very suddenly. Can you imagine coming to financial ruin because you invested in the wrong seller of tulip bulbs? I am seriously considering creating a big planter just for irises a wide variety of irises, just investing way too much in prettiness because it will please me. So… bad idea? I’ll try to stay strong.

Tulips, roses, African violets, monsteras, begonias, and yes irises are among the many plant groups (not all for flowers) that have had large trends in wide production of new varieties and collecting them. Orchids? Always. I don’t know if there’s really been a fall in orchid interest. If you find a “society” for a certain type of plant with an extensive website, it has probably been “trending” at some point. Although I’ve also seen smaller native so-and-so-species societies as well.

Dutch tulips still life, from 1625. Posted by Swallowtail Garden Seeds
peony flower dahlia seeds, 1910 by posted Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Something that was new to me when I moved to the Pacific Northwest with it’s cooler climate and soggy winters, is the dahlia fandom. I’ve been using the State Fair and other home & garden shows as a measure of what’s popular out there, and for years, dahlias seem to be #1 around here. The flower displays for competition looked like 60% dahlias and 40% several other plants/flowers. I could be wrong. But they seem to be the IT plant around here.

Dahlias are like a the drag-queen of daisies, gone way beyond the fancy and glamour level of your basic dandelion but all are in the composite flower family Asteraceae. A ball or head of many tiny flowers, usually with some sex-less only-petal “ray” flowers on the most outside.

Florist display of dahlias, off Pinterest

There are just so many types of color combinations and they can make huge charismatic blooming displays. Thus, dahlias are another rainbow-flower. I’ve seen white, black, purples, yellow, orange, blues, purples, and tons of red ones. A single flower can also have multiple colors in its petals, some even have half & half, like a split pizza of prettiness.

vibrant summer dahlia flower

Dahlias also bloom for a very long time in our temperate gardens, from late spring to frost.

But still, they aren’t native species where they tend to be cultivated so they won’t be supporting the same amount of pollinators and feeding other wildlife as some having the same number of native plants in your yard.

But they beat a lawn for sure! Apparently small tree frogs also enjoy a large dahlia bloom for little cup sleeping chambers. I mean… yes! Points for cuteness too. It made the Buzz news, of course.

posted news clip pulled from an Instagram post that made frogs in a dahlia recently famous
Dahlia coccinea species
Dahlia coccinea illustration, by Biodiversity Heritage Library

The dahlia may be the national flower of Mexico, but they grow very well in the warm mostly dry summers and soggy cold winters if the PNW and pretty much all over North America. They were actually discovered by the Spanish in North and into Central Americas. It was 200 years of cultivation and hybridizing between mostly 2 wild species (Dahlia coccinea and D. imperialis) that has created the huge variety of cultivars we have today, just like roses and irises and tulips and coleus, oh my.

D. imperialis illustration, by Biodiversity Heritage Library

After some shuffling and official organizing to sort hybrids from actual species, dahlias now fall into 42 recognized species and a few sub-species, and split into 4 species groups. Most fall into the “Dahlia” group, while 7 are in the “Entemophyllon” and 4 in the “Pseudodendron” groups, with the odd-ball species that’s a vining epiphyte in it’s own group. Beyond actual species, the cultivated hybrids that give the iconic pompom look are classified by a four digit number. So if you want to really dig into the dahlia depths, attend shows or grow your own prize-winning ones, that’s the next level to know.

A little taste of the categories: “Incurved Cactus – These dahlias also have ray florets that are curved for more than one half of the length but the pointed petals have a pronounced curvature toward the center of the flower head.”

dahlia in competition, dahlia ray flowers, maroon dahlia
dahlia in competition with different ray flower types and prominant disk flowers

I love plant nerding, but this sort of thing feels too much like a dog show and makes my head hurt from my eyes rolling too hard. I’ll count stamen hairs with a hand lens to key out an unknown species, but that horticultural minutia is not my bag.

pompom dahlia, globe dahlia, ball dahlia
"ball" class dahlia in competition

They have high genetic diversity creating the many colors and shapes. What you’ll notice is how very different these classified cultivars are from the pure species. They are more ball-like without visible naughty-bits of the disk flowers in the center of the inflorescence. You know- the yellow middle frilly bits in the center of the white outer ray petals. They are the showy infertile flowers that draw a pollinator’s attention the actual fertile sex-part flowers in the center. The fancy pompom dahlias have converted all the fertile less flashy bits into showy petals, like double begonias and many roses. It’s purely a selected mutation to satisfy our desire for more pretty showiness in our garden flowers.

yellow and orange dahlia
I would name this one fire poker, from a dahlia garden

A dahlia flower "traditionally" symbolizes a variety of notions from “finding inner strength”, positive changes, new beginnings, kindness, royalty, and commitment. Seems people can’t commit to a few “meanings”. Can you assign any mystical meaning a highly altered cultivated plant? The real meaning of “dahlia” is the “flower named after Swedish botanist Anders Dahl”.

They are plants of resilience and flexibility just in their biological capabilities and shining beauty and not too bad a fit for a diversity flower of the rainbow and a fab familiar face in the flower shops. May they continue to shelter cherished wildlife as they bring vibrancy to our summer days.

ombre dahlia
Ombre lavender dahlia in competition, like a gown out of a fairytale movie


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