Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • Living Treasure from the Past
Read More: Dahlias
Mary Keen’s “Subtle, Indispensable” Dahlias
Renowned garden designer and author Mary Keen says dahlias – including some of our heirlooms – are “an indispensable feature” of her Gloucestershire garden.
In her long career, Keen has worked on many grand gardens, including those of the Rothschilds. At home, as she wrote in the July 2017 issue of Gardens Illustrated, she prefers the informal look of “a mingled matrix with a few spots of larger, brighter plants.” In this setting, “dahlias are a much better bet than roses.”
And here’s a tip: Mary says if you use too many “attention grabbers” such as tulips, peonies, delphiniums, and dahlias, “planting lacks depth and mystery.” But “you can scale down the impact by choosing more subtle forms” such as single, cactus. and waterlily dahlias which “lighten a planting better than a dinner-plate flower.”
In 1879 a customer wrote to nurseryman James Vick, editor of the popular Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, praising a white dahlia that was “the prettiest thing I ever saw” with flowers that “didn’t look much like dahlias, but more like asters.”
Vick explained that “this class of dahlias is called Pompon or Bouquet,” and added that “there are two very good white sorts, White Aster and Little Snowball.”
But do the neatly rounded flowers of ‘White Aster’ really look like asters?
Not compared to the perennial asters that are commonly grown in gardens today, but back in 1879 the most popular asters – by far – were the annual bedding plants known as China asters, Callistephus chinensis. Vick devoted an entire page of his 1872 catalog to images of them, including ‘Imbrique Pompon’, which is pictured here. Although it’s a highly idealized image, I hope you’ll agree that it looks something like a pompon dahlia – and some modern China asters do, too.
But originally ‘White Aster’ looked even more like an aster because its petals were notched at the tip, making them look narrower, more numerous, and, well, more aster-like. You can see what I mean in this magnificent chromolithograph which was published full-page in Vick’s Monthly in 1878. Although none of the dahlias in the image are labeled, I’m virtually certain that’s ‘White Aster’.
Dahlia genetics are complex and unstable, though, and apparently sometime during ‘White Aster’s long history its DNA reverted to producing normal, rounded petals. (Something similar seems to be happening with ‘Old Gold’, whose petals are sometimes notched and sometimes not.) The change must have occurred sometime after 1956 because the de Jager catalog that year describes ‘White Aster’ as having “lovely laciniated flowers.” Although nowadays “laciniated” refers to the fringe-like petals of dahlias such as ‘Tsuki Yori no Shisha’, its dictionary definition is simply “cut into narrow lobes; slashed; jagged.”
Of course it could be that today’s ‘White Aster’ is simply an impostor substituted for the real thing sometime between 1956 and when we first acquired it 50 years later from one of Germany’s oldest and most respected dahlia nurseries – but, at least for now, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and believe that it’s the real thing minus the notching.
Could the notching reappear someday? Yes! So please keep your eyes peeled and if you ever find a notched bloom on your ‘White Aster’, contact us ASAP. With a little luck we might be able to root a cutting and eventually re-introduce the original, more aster-like ‘White Aster’.
(Thanks to garden historian Thomas Mickey who inspired this article and shared the amazing chromolithograph with us. Read his blog post “Victorian Dahlia ‘White Aster’ Still Shines” and more at American Gardening.net.)
Who’s That Growing in My Garden? David Howard, the Man Behind the Dahlia
With its dark foliage and apricot-orange flowers, ‘David Howard’ is one of our most popular heirloom dahlias.
But who was David Howard?
Back in the late 1950s he was just a British teenager who had always loved plants. Instead of raising hell he was raising dahlias from seed, and – according to a 2004 article in The Telegraph – “one of these, a seedling from Dahlia‘Bishop of Llandaff’, was taken up by a visiting nurseryman, who named it ‘David Howard’.” Introduced in 1960, it became “an instant hit with gardeners and it remains one of the best dark-leaved dahlias around” – so good that it’s won the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit.
Howard went on to launch his own nursery in 1969 with £50 in the bank and a half-acre of rented land. In time it grew to be as successful as his namesake dahlia, and today Howard Nurseries Ltd. - which Howard runs with his daughter Christine, pictured here - is one of England’s largest wholesale perennial growers, annually producing over two million plants of some 1500 varieties at their farm in the beautiful Suffolk countryside.
Although Howard has always championed the best of the new, “it’s not just new varieties that attract his eye,” according to The Telegraph. “One firm favorite is a long-established bearded iris called ‘Rajah’ [introduced in 1942], which has rich burgundy falls shot with gold and butter-yellow upper petals.” Howard introduced it to leading garden designers “who have since used it to great effect in several show gardens. Its appeal has filtered down to garden centers” and it’s now a popular iris throughout the UK.
We don’t offer ‘Rajah’ – yet – but you can order ‘David Howard’ right now for planting this spring. Who knows, it may inspire you or a teenager you love to do what David Howard did and follow your garden dreams.
Frumpy No More: Glads and Dahlias for Stylish Bouquets
Alstroemeria and gazanias, step aside! According to a leading British newspaper, dahlias and glads are the hot new flowers for bouquets.
Although the news took a while to reach us here in Michigan, The Telegraph reported in September 2016 that “nostalgic Britons have revived an English country garden trend by decorating their homes with ‘frumpy’ British-grown flowers such as gladiolus, dahlias, and delphiniums.”
“Despite once being associated with other ‘undesirable’ stems such as chrysanthemums, experts said . . . more families are choosing these retro-style flowers instead of classics such as roses and lilies.” In fact, one major supermarket chain reported that glad sales were up 30%.
“Although gladiolus are often used in magnificent displays at venues such as Westminster Abbey, they are perfect for the less experienced arranger,” said a spokesperson at the UK National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies. “Gladiolus make a bold modern statement in a large vase or container on their own.”
For easy, on-trend bouquets from your own backyard, why not order a few of our retro-style glads and dahlias now for spring delivery?
A few days after his team won the World Series this fall, Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander (former star of our hometown Detroit Tigers) married super-model Kate Upton in an intimate ceremony in Tuscany – and ‘Café au Lait’ dahlia was there!
At least we think that’s what’s decorating the aisle in this photo the happy couple posted on Instagram. The shape is right, the soft, dreamy color is right, and ‘Café au Lait’ is very much in vogue for weddings. (Although some blooms pictured have open centers, this is common late in the season when there’s less sunlight for petal production.)
To add some All Star/super-model romance to your garden, order ‘Café au Lait’ now for spring delivery!
‘Little Beeswing’ Stars at Hampton Court Flower Show
No, that’s not a typo in the title above. We recently learned that the dahlia we’ve always known as ‘Little Beeswings’ – with an “s” at the end – is actually ‘Little Beeswing’ – without the “s.”
Whatever you call it, this cheery little pompon dahlia has been a favorite of our customers ever since we first offered it in 2003. And this past July it was a hit at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show where it was part of a display by Plant Heritage, the world’s leading non-profit devoted to preserving garden plants.
As Lucy Pitman explains at the Plant Heritage blog, “‘Little Beeswing’ has been offered in the Plant Exchange for several years by a National Collection Holder in Cambridgeshire, he having obtained his original plants from Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens in Michigan. Because this bright Dahlia was flowering so beautifully in perfect time for the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, it became the star of the show in the Plant Guardian display.”
The National Collection Holder she mentions is our good friend Alan Shipp, the Noah of hyacinths, who’s been growing ‘Little Beeswing’ ever since we sent it to him years ago. When Lucy asked Alan about its history, he sent her to us, and after several hours of research in the OHG library and online, here’s what we think we know.
‘Little Beeswing’ (the earliest spelling of its name) was introduced in 1909 (not 1886 or 1938, as some sources indicate) by Keynes, Williams, and Co. (not J.K Alexander), a celebrated nursery in Salisbury, England (not Australia) that introduced dahlias from at least 1863 to 1938. It apparently made its way to the US shortly thereafter (not in 1938 as Lucy believed when she wrote her blog) because by 1916 it was noted as “new” in a list of “best dahlias” published by the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, and in 1917 it was mentioned in the Bulletin of the Dahlia Society of California.
Extra Easy Growing (and Storing) Dahlias in Buried Pots
If you haven’t planted your dahlias yet, here’s a simple way to grow and store them from our good customer Jenn Hovland of Fleur de Louise Flower Studio in Stillwater, Minnesota.
“For several years now I have stored my dahlia tubers ‘in the dry’ as they do in England,” Jenn wrote on her spring order. “I start by planting a new tuber in a 1 or 2 gallon plastic pot. I lay it flat near the top of the pot, cover it with just an inch of soil, water it once, and then leave it alone until sprouts emerge.
“When the weather warms up, I plant it outside, pot and all, with the pot buried about halfway and a stake pounded in the ground next to it. I always use black or green pots so whatever isn’t buried or hidden by other plants is still pretty much invisible.
“At the end of the season when frost blackens the foliage, I wait a few days, lift the entire pot, cut back the dead foliage, let it dry on my porch for a couple of days, and then put it in the basement and forget about it. In March or April when I notice new growth, I move it upstairs to a sunny window and it’s ready for the new season.
“By using this method, I've lost very few tubers to rot or drying out. Although it takes a little extra space to store the pots, it has worked very well for me.”
Wanting to know more, I emailed Jenn and she cheerfully answered all of my questions.
One-gallon pots seemed small to me, so I was surprised to learn that she sometimes uses even smaller ones. Pot size doesn’t seem to matter much because, although the tuber-cluster remains confined within the pot, its feeder roots grow through the holes in the bottom. When the pot gets crowded after a couple of years, Jenn divides the cluster and starts all over again.
During the winter she keeps the pots as dark as possible because light encourages sprouting. In March she starts checking for new growth, and when the first sprouts appear – this year in mid-April – she adds an inch of compost to all pots, waters them once, and moves them to a sunny window.
“Then in May,” she told me, “I take the plants outside to harden them off for a couple of weeks, bringing them in at night until they adjust to outdoor living. By mid-May they’ll be staying outside overnight, except when frost is predicted. I finally plant them in the garden around Memorial Day. By then they are quite large plants – which means they’ll bloom earlier.”
That sounds good to me, and I’m planning to give Jenn’s method a try. If you do, too, please let us know your results so we can learn from you as well!
Here are a couple of rave reviews for two of our most popular dahlias:
“‘Prince Noir’ was absolutely brilliant,” our good customer Connie Casey of Old Chatham, NY, wrote us a while back. “Many, many huge wine-red flowers from late July till the end of October. It (he?) was next to our outdoor shower, set off spectacularly by two vines in back – hops and a red and orange honeysuckle. Whenever we were invited to dinner I brought a bouquet of mahogany sunflowers, red snapdragons, maroon sneezeweed, pink cosmos, and ‘Prince Noir’.”
“‘Old Gold’ is absolutely, stunningly glorious!” our good customer Sejean Sohn of Bethlehem, PA, wrote. ”It really does appear to flicker with light. I’m growing over 70 different dahlias this year from several specialty sources, but OHG’s ‘Old Gold’, ‘Prince Noir’, and ‘Jane Cowl’ are truly exceptional.”
The frothy pink blossoms of our ‘Rosemary Webb’ dahlia fill an old yellow pitcher on the cover of the April-May 2017 issue of MaryJanesFarm magazine.
Inside, in an article titled “Dreamy Dahlias,” MaryJane writes, “I bought my tubers from Old House Gardens.... A ‘new generation of sustainable farmers,’ they cultivate heirloom bulbs on five ‘micro farms’ on vacant lots and other scraps of land within a few blocks of downtown Ann Arbor. Mine were, if I must say so myself, stunning!”
An organic farmer in Moscow, Idaho, MaryJane launched her “organic-focused lifestyle magazine” in 2001. Today it has a circulation of 135,000 and if you’re not already a subscriber you can find it at Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and other stores all across the country.
MaryJane showcases our daffodils on page 5 of the May-June issue, too, with photos from our catalog of eleven heirloom varieties she planted at her farm last fall. Stay tuned for a follow-up article on them sometime later this year – and subscribe or learn more at maryjanesfarm.org/.
‘Jersey’s Beauty’ and the Millionaire Gardeners of Sewickley
(Here’s a fascinating story by our good customer Letitia Savage. Thank you, Letty, for sharing it with us!)
By the 1920s Pittsburgh’s industrial millionaires had flocked to Sewickley, Pennsylvania, to summer in country houses along the bluffs of the Ohio River. While the estates had ranks of professional gardeners, the owners were often actively involved, particularly when it came to competitive gardening.
Mrs. B. F. Jones, Jr. was typical of these serious amateur gardeners. The wife of a steel industry magnate, she lived at Fairacres, a 100-room Louis XVI mansion surrounded by acres of gardens. There, with the help of her gardener R. M. Fletcher, she grew thousands of dahlias.
In Sewickley the gardening year culminated in September with the annual Dahlia Show. As the Sewickley Herald reported in 1926, “There is hardly another flower which makes such a glorious showing when exhibited in mass.... Those who have never seen a dahlia show have indeed a thrill yet to live for.”
The three-day event included almost 50 competitive classes for dahlias – including many for vases of 12 to 25 blooms of a variety. Photos of the show in the society pages of the Pittsburgh press are still breathtaking. Dahlias in vases tower over the heads of the small girls admiring them, and some arrangements are even taller than their mothers.
In 1926, the star of the show was ‘Jersey’s Beauty’. The Herald featured it in a full color photo on the front page of it’s September 25 edition and noted, “If you are familiar with dahlias, you will be interested in ‘Jersey Beauty,’ in some ways the finest dahlia developed in recent years.” Introduced just three years earlier, it originally sold for $25 a tuber – a trifle for Mrs. Jones but the equivalant, according to the ADS’s Martin Kral, of “fifty gallons of milk, or a man’s new suit, or one of those modern home appliances, a vacuum cleaner.”
Although it’s not 100% clear whether it was Mrs. Jones’s ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ that stole the show in 1926, local reports say the Herald’s cover-girl dahlia was raised at Fairacres, and an oil painting of that flower once hung in splendor there, perhaps alongside her Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
Twenty years after her death in 1941, Mrs. Jones’ opulent summer home was razed. Her painting of ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ survives, though, preserved by the Sewickley Valley Historical Society, along with a stack of small cards tied with a faded blue ribbon. Although they don’t include dates or variety names, each card documents one of the many flower-show awards that Mrs. Jones won, poignant souvenirs of her prize-winning roses, chrysanthemums, and, above all, her glorious dahlias.
(‘Jersey’s Beauty’ went on to become one of the most popular dahlias of the 20th century. Although it’s almost sold out, if you order it now you can enjoy it just as Mrs. Jones once did – and it won’t cost you anywhere near as much as a vacuum cleaner!)
While researching our ‘Fashion Monger’ dahlia – a Garden Gate“must have” plant for 2017 – we discovered this tidbit in the Oct. 2, 1902, Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Home Farmer:
“A new type of dahlia has come into existence. It has been named the collaret form and first was brought to notice by Messrs. H. Cannell and Sons [of] Swanley, Kent. . . .
“This new class possesses . . . a series of stalked appendices of a collaret form producing a great ornamental effect. The engraving gives a good idea of its nature. The colors are somewhat limited at present but in the course of another season or so the variation of tints will be very much increased . . . .
“The original plants have already been awarded Gold Medals and Certificates at various important exhibitions. ‘President Viger’ is the best-known. . . . As there may be a future for this race, it is probable that many growers will obtain plants to form a beginning with them.”
There was indeed “a future for this race,” and scores of collarets– or collarettes, as they’re usually spelled in the US – are available today. ‘President Viger’ is extinct, alas, but we offer two of the oldest – ‘Clair de Lune’ (1946) and ‘Fashion Monger’ (from 1955) – and you can order them now for April delivery!
Garden Gate Names ‘Fashion Monger’ a “Best New Plant” for 2017
Old can be new, as our friends at Garden Gate understand, which is why they’ve named our ‘Fashion Monger’ dahlia one of their “Must Haves for 2017.”
“‘Fashion Monger’ may not be brand-new,” writes associate editor Sherri Ribbey, “but it’s been away so long it seems like it is. Originally introduced in 1955, this collarette dahlia was gradually replaced by newer cultivars. Fortunately, it was preserved and heirloom-bulb grower Old House Gardens is offering it for sale again.”
“‘Fashion Monger’ is a favorite of bees,” Sherri adds, “and it makes a great cut flower, too.”
Our supply this first year is limited, so if you want this old-but-new beauty, order soon!
Although the West Coast drought has eased a bit, we thought you’d be interested in this success story from our good customer Pat of zone-9bWC San Jose. We can’t guarantee it will work for you, but . . . .
“I grew some of your ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias last year and found them great for our arid climate. I planted them very deep, maybe a foot down, which is low enough for our clay soil to remain moist with almost no watering, if you can believe it. Maybe once a week.
“I followed the directions at your website and put the tubers at the bottom of the hole and then filled in soil little by little as the leaves emerged, which they did very quickly.
“My tiny garden on the west side of our garage gets a good five to six hours of blazing, direct sun and then light shade later in the afternoon. Since we’re in a valley and not near the ocean, nights are generally cool and dry. [OHG: This is exactly what dahlias love!] The plants wilted on the hottest days but they perked up afterward, as you’d see with tomatoes or potatoes.
“Thank you for letting me ramble on. No one in my family is interested. My neighbors like all the free flowers, though! I give quite a few away.”
Like most people, I had no idea that flowers ever grew at The Rock – until 2009 when an order for some of our dahlias and glads arrived here from that infamous island in San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz, I soon learned, has a long, complex history, and gardens have been a part of most of it. Some were public plantings tended by prisoners while others were the home gardens of the warden and guards who lived there with their families.
Last month I spent an afternoon walking Alcatraz with Dick Miner, a long-time volunteer who’s been helping to bring its gardens back to life after 40 years of abandonment. Dick talked about the herculean effort to clear decades of weeds and overgrowth and the excitement of rediscovering paths, retaining walls, and a surprising array of garden plants that survived amid the ruins.
“Bulbs were a favorite garden plant of the island’s residents,” Alcatraz’s director of gardens Shelagh Fritz wrote recently in Horticulture magazine. “Many bulbs originate from other Mediterranean regions and therefore find great success here – a happy coincidence since soldiers and guards simply brought their favorite garden plants with them to Alcatraz” including daffodils, freesia, Spanish bluebell, snowflake, and grape hyacinth. “When we cleared the overgrowth from the gardens, these bulbs came back to life after lying dormant for decades.”
For a look at these fascinating gardens, see Shelagh’s article, “A Hardened Garden.” To learn even more, go to AlcatrazGardens.org. And if you’re one of the 1.5 million people who will visit Alcatraz this year, don’t miss the docent-led tours of the gardens!
Staff Picks: Vanessa’s Favorites for Spring Planting
Vanessa Elms lives in a charming little 1920s bungalow in the Depot Town neighborhood of nearby Ypsilanti (the Brooklyn of Ann Arbor). She traces her love of plants to tagging along with her parents to local nurseries when she was a child, and after earning a horticulture degree from Michigan State and spending a few years working for a landscape company in Chicago, she returned here a few years ago to join us as our VP for Bulbs.
When I asked her to recommend ONE of her favorite spring-planted bulbs, Vanessa gave me three instead:
‘Mexican Single’ tuberose – “Every year I grow these in clay pots near my living room windows, and their fragrance drifts in nicely on warm summer nights. They’re also a favorite of the hawk moths that visit my garden in the early evening.
‘George Davison’ crocosmia – “Last summer I planted these with some other plants that attract hummingbirds, and they were a big hit. They can be slow to sprout – I actually started to plant annuals over mine because I was sure they weren’t coming up – but they’re definitely worth the wait.
‘Prince Noir’ dahlia – “My all time favorite dahlia! I especially love the contrast of these dark-petaled flowers in a simple white vase.”
Before it sells out early this year (as it always does), here’s a bit of history about big, beautiful ‘Jane Cowl’. Sent to us by our good customer Jim O’Donnell of Philadelphia, it’s from the November 1927 edition of Garden and Home Builder:
“In the large class at the American Dahlia Society’s show for seedlings” – which are dahlias that are not yet named or for sale – “not one of the more than thirty varieties exhibited could be casually passed by. Judging this rich amount of material occupied the gathered experts for some considerable time, and it was by no means an easy walkover for the winner; and yet, when Miss Jane Cowl [one of the most famous actresses of that era], who honored the exhibition with her presence on the first day, was invited to select out of the seedlings the one that should be named for her, she unhesitatingly and almost instantaneously decided on the same bloom that the judges had already selected for the big award.
“It would not be wise, however, to argue from this that the expert judges might be done away with. Miss Cowl, of course, selected the bloom that pleased her most without any regard to its comparative distinctiveness and other qualifications and standards by which the experts must measure any newcomer. There is, however, much satisfaction to be had in the fact that the popular favor and expert judgment in this instance, at all events, did coincide.”
See what Miss Cowl and the experts liked so much here, and if you decide you have to have it, be sure to order soon!
Meadowburn Farm in northwest New Jersey was once the home of popular garden writer Helena Rutherfurd Ely. When published in 1903, Ely’s A Woman’s Hardy Garden was one of the first American garden books to reject Victorian pattern bedding in favor of a more informal style of gardening with shrubs, old-fashioned annuals, and perennials.
Meadowburn Farm has changed remarkably little since Ely’s death in 1920. It’s been owned by one family since 1930, and since 1883 its gardens have been tended by Ely’s original gardener and his descendants. Today, with the help of the Garden Conservancy, the gardens are being restored to their former glory
Ely wrote that dahlias, glads, cannas, and red salvia were the only pattern-bedding plants she grew at Meadowburn. Dahlias are “decorative and desirable for cutting,” she explained, and “all the varieties are lovely.”
Today seven dahlia varieties survive at Meadowburn, possibly from as far back as Ely’s time. Unfortunately by the time Quill Teal-Sullivan was hired four years ago to guide the restoration of the gardens, the names of all had been lost. Quill turned to us for help, but since literally tens of thousands of dahlias have been introduced since Ely’s time, I knew that identifying Meadowburn’s relics would be a long shot at best.
After looking at photos, all I could tell her was that one might be ‘Jane Cowl’ and another ‘Deuil du Roi Albert’. We sent her tubers of both so she could grow them side by side to compare foliage, height, bloom-time, and other details – which is the only way to be certain about an identification – and we put her in touch with nearby dahlia experts who could visit Meadowburn and offer their insights.
Quill finally decided that one of the dahlias is indeed ‘Jane Cowl’, and she’s given new names to the others. Perhaps oldest of all – to judge by its 19th-century form and the way its flowers nod – is the one that’s now called ‘Meadowburn Byba Vincenza’ (see above left).
All seven are for sale at the Meadowburn website, with proceeds helping to fund the restoration of the gardens, including “the 150-foot dahlia allèe – filled with heirloom varieties – [which] erupts with color in late summer, as it has done for more than a century.” Learn more about Meadowburn’s gardens and its dahlias – and then maybe order one of its relics to grow in your own garden this summer! (Feb. 2016)
Dahlia Accolades: 5 RHS Award Winners, 3 Maine Survivors
Of the more than 75,000 plants available to gardeners today, less than 10% have been honored by the Royal Horticultural Society with its prestigious Award of Garden Merit. These exceptional plants have proven their worth as “the best for all-around garden value.”
Another impressive accolade comes from our good customer Judith Mitchell of Waldoboro, Maine. “I got my first dahlias from you while it was still pretty chilly here in zone 5b,” she writes, “so I very carefully put my tubers aside to wait for warmer weather. Well, you can probably guess what happened – that’s right, I couldn’t find them. In fact, it was well into July when I almost literally stumbled upon them out in the shed.
“Ay-yi-yi, I thought. I immediately planted them with many apologies to the little guys, thinking, of course, that all was lost, I’d get nothing, and it was my own damned fault.
“BUT!!! Lo and behold, they soon sprouted, leaves unfurled, and – much to my rapturous delight – buds appeared! I heaped praise and encouragement on them, and at this late writing [Oct. 17], all have bloomed except for ‘Atropurpurea’, which does have two little buds although they probably won’t mature before frost. ‘Union Jack’ is lovely, and ‘Little Beeswings’ is sheer delight – the most adorable, perfect, and floriferous little dahlia in my dahlia-rich garden. Many thanks for all your marvelous flowers!”
Congratulations to the American Dahlia Society on its 100th anniversary!
Introduced from Mexico in 1798, dahlias became one of the most popular plants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The UK’s National Dahlia Society was founded in 1881, the German Dahlia Society in 1897, and – after a failed attempt in 1895 – the ADS was established in 1915. The new society held its first national show that fall in New York’s Museum of Natural History. The blooms were displayed in milk bottles, winners took home $100 worth of ribbons and medals as well as $325 in cash, and the show drew some 35,000 enthusiastic viewers.
Dahlias are on the rise again today, and of all the bulbs we ship in the spring, they’re the most popular with our customers. They’re easy to grow, great for bouquets, and spectacularly diverse. To celebrate the ADS centennial, here are four easy ways to add at least one of these incredible flowers to your garden this spring:
1. Grow the oldest dahlia that still ranks as an ADS “Fabulous 50” dahlia – ‘Kidd’s Climax’, which last year won 78 blue ribbons or higher awards.
“I am hoping that ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ is the dahlia that my papaw and mamaw grew for many years,” Roger Flatford wrote us when he ordered last spring. I hoped so, too, but I knew that was a very long shot. Tens of thousands of dahlias have been introduced, many look a lot alike, and very few have been preserved. But in late summer we got a happy surprise:
“I can’t say thank you enough for ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ dahlia!” Roger Flatford wrote. “This dahlia grew at my mamaw and papaw’s house in [zone-7a] Heiskell, Tennessee, coming back for them for 30 or 40 years, even through some hard winters. I’m 52 and I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. Every summer it would reward us with the most beautiful lavender blooms. We never knew its name but we always loved to see it bloom.
“My papaw kept a beautiful yard, and I inherited the flower gene from him. After he died in 1980 I tried to keep his flowers growing for my mamaw. Over the years, though, most all were lost except for the lavender dahlia and two old peonies and a little iris that just kept multiplying. Then one year the dahlia didn’t come back. I was really sad to see it gone.
“A few years later my mamaw passed away at 93. That summer I spent a lot of time at the little white house on the hill, remembering how much fun we had visiting there when I was a kid. Then I started looking everywhere I could think of, hoping to find the lavender dahlia. I bought several that looked right, but when they bloomed they were never the one.
“This past spring I saw two dahlias at your website that I thought maybe, just maybe were it, so I purchased them both. A couple of weeks ago I went out to the garden and there it was, Papaw’s Lavender Dahlia. What a reward! I know Mamaw and Papaw are smiling down from heaven.
“Next spring, I’m going to plant another one at the little white house on the hill in memory of my mamaw and papaw, Goldie and Roma Graham. Thank you, Old House Gardens, for finding and preserving the beautiful ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’.”
You’re welcome, Roger! Interestingly enough, that unusually hardy dahlia came to us from Joyce Dowell who got it from her grandmother in Scottsville, Kentucky – which, as the crow flies, is just 100 miles away from where your grandparents lived.
The Bishop in Winter: Resurrection of a Lost Tuber
Is it a miracle? Maybe not, but we think you’ll find this recent testimonial from Tulsa garden writer Russell Studebaker inspiring.
“This spring I ordered some of your dahlias, but somehow I forgot to plant the ‘Bishop of Llandaff‘ – and only rediscovered him in late summer. Since the Bishop was still plump, as most real life bishops are, and wee red sprouts were showing, he was reverently planted in a gallon container on August 17.
“He grew and is now about a foot tall. Before our first frost in November I moved him inside in front of two large south windows where he’s been residing happily ever since. Although I don’t expect him to flower this winter, I’m giving him some time to build up his strength before I give him a rest. Then I’ll look forward to his grand, proper, and belated appearance in the garden next summer.
“You’ve got good stock – and perhaps the Bishop has good connections with the heavenly father.”
How Do Your Dahlias Grow in the HOT South and Southwest?
In the highlands of Mexico where dahlias originated, the nights are always cool, and most varieties today still need those cool night temperatures to grow and bloom well.
Some are more heat-tolerant, though, and we recommend these through zone 8 in the South and Southwest – as noted in our dahlia chart.
To expand our list of heat-tolerant dahlias, we’d like to hear from you if you garden in zone 8 or warmer in the South or Southwest. Which of our dahlias have thrived for you, and which haven’t?
Here’s one recent success story from zone-8b Mobile. Our good customer Glenda Snodgrass emailed us last November to say her mother-in-law, Barbara Adair, bought a ‘Thomas Edison’ dahlia with a gift certificate Glenda had given her. “I told her dahlias couldn’t be grown in Mobile, but she said her mother always had dahlias here, and I’ve had to eat some crow because it bloomed last week and it’s beautiful!”
Barbara grew her dahlia in a large clay pot on her deck. (Pots can be tough for dahlias, but see our Bulbs in Pots page for tips.) “North side, full sun in morning, some shade during the day, until late afternoon full sun,” she explained. By mid-October the plant was six feet tall and the first flower opened. “It’s a darker purple than in your catalog,” Barbara wrote, “a real beauty!”
Dahlias are incredibly diverse, and most of the time that’s a good thing — but not always. Unlike most living things which have two sets of chromosomes, dahlias are octoploids which means they have eight. This wider range of genetic possibilities is the source of their astonishing diversity, but it also creates more opportunities for things to go awry.
Chimeras — named for a mythological beast that was part lion, goat, and snake — are plants in which cells of two different genetic make-ups exist side by side. Many bi-tone, speckled, and other variegated dahlias are chimeras, and the interaction between their genetically different sections or layers is often unstable. ‘Nonette’, for example, is usually an apricot colored dahlia sprinkled with tiny bits of red. Sometimes, though, its flowers are all apricot or all red. (See photos of this and more at our new Wacky Dahlias page.) Most of the time most flowers of a chimera are normal with only a random few that are different, but sometimes the plant changes completely so that all of its flowers are different, and sometimes only one part of a flower goes wacky.
Growing conditions can make a difference, too. Flower colors often change as the weather cools and sunlight diminishes in the fall, and stressful conditions — too much heat or not enough water, sunlight, or nutrients — can sometimes make double flowers bloom with fewer petals.
Most of these changes are only temporary (and often entertaining), but if you have a dahlia that bloomed all wrong this year, please let us know so we can send you a refund, credit, or replacement. And if you have a photo of one of our dahlias gone wacky in your garden, we’d love to see it!
Inspired by the deep purple, 1929 dahlia ‘Thomas A. Edison’, our friend Betsy Ginsburg blogged recently about the great inventor’s “strong connection to horticulture.”
Edison and his wife Mina were both nature lovers, she writes, and in 1885 Edison himself sketched out the landscape plan for their new winter home in Florida. It’s an orderly, geometric design with lots of trees and shrubs, broad panels of lawn ringed by flower beds, and a big kitchen garden screened from the house by a hedge of lemons and limes.
Years later Edison’s good friend Henry Ford built a house next door, and in the 1920s the two men joined with tire magnate Harvey Firestone to establish the Edison Botanic Research Corporation on the grounds. Seeking a domestic source for rubber, Edison grew, cross-bred, and tested some 17,000 plants there, eventually developing a goldenrod (Solidago) that yielded almost 12% rubber.
Today the lush grounds of Edison’s Florida home are preserved as part of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates museum. You can learn more about Edison’s landscape at the museum’s website, and read Betsy’s “Edison’s Plants and Plans” at her always interesting blog, The Gardener’s Apprentice.
One of our most enthusiastic customers is acclaimed potter Frances Palmer of Connecticut whose distinctive hand-made tableware and vases are regularly featured in national magazines such as House Beautiful, Vogue, and Martha Stewart Living.
Blog of the Month: Margaret Roach Talks Heirlooms with Scott
If you’re not reading Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden, you’re missing something special. Margaret’s combination of what she calls “horticultural how-to and woo-woo” have made hers one of the most popular garden blogs.
And Margaret appreciates the pleasures of the past. In 2007 she left her job as Editorial Director of Martha Stewart Living and moved to an old farmhouse in rural New York that she’s been restoring and filling with all sorts of beautiful things, from antique typewriters to pressed seaweed. (Take a peek at apartmenttherapy.com.)
So naturally I was thrilled when Margaret asked me to talk with her recently about heirloom bulbs, especially dahlias. You can listen to the podcast of our 24-minute chat anytime you want, or read the condensed version of it at her blog.
She starts by calling me “Mr. Heirloom Bulb himself” – which I’m pretty sure she meant as a compliment – and then asks me to explain my “anthropological passion for these exceptional plants,” how my definition of heirlooms has changed over the past 30 years, why I like growing dahlias, and more. In the course of our talk I learned that she “particularly loves” dark-leaved dahlias such as ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and that her favorite antique iris is ‘Gracchus’.
There’s a lot of excellent how-to at Margaret’s blog, and unusual plants, and recipes, and even frogs, but her greatest strength, I’d say, is that she enjoys exploring the deeper connections and meaning in gardening, nature, and life. One recent example is her heart-felt remembrance of Jack, the cat who walked out of the woods and into her life on 9/11. If you’re an animal lover, especially, you won’t want to miss it.
Bulbs in Pots: Our New Page of Tips for Tuberoses, Rain Lilies, and More
Every summer we decorate our front porch with pots of fragrant tuberoses and little pink rain lilies, while out in the back yard we tuck pots of glads in among the perennials to provide exclamation points of color.
You can, too! Most spring-planted bulbs are easy to grow in containers, and you’ll find everything you need to know at our newly expanded “Bulbs in Pots” page.
Read it now and get ready for a summer filled with beauty, fragrance, and fun.
Millions of Dahlias Decorate Mammoth Floats for Dutch Parade
Here’s a visual treat for all of us who are hungering for summer: the Corso Zundert, an annual Dutch parade featuring 20 spectacular floats, each covered with up to a half a million dahlias. It’s like the Rose Bowl parade on steroids, or LSD!
Started in the 1930s, the parade is an all-volunteer effort by the people of the small town of Zundert – Van Gogh’s birthplace – and a local art school. Each float can be up to 60 feet long and three stories tall, and they’re all decorated almost entirely with dahlias picked from 600,000 plants that are grown locally just for the parade.
But a picture is worth a thousand words, and the real treat is seeing the colorful, wildly imaginative floats themselves. Start at the parade’s homepage – “Welcome at the website of Corso Zundert!” – and be sure to click the center of the photo for an introductory video. There are fascinating pages about the parade’s history and how the floats are constructed, along with many other photos and videos. Don’t miss the video of last year’s top float (first row, second from left) and the reaction of its builders as their victory is announced. No matter how winter-weary your heart is, it will be warmed.
Tiger Lilies and Dahlias in The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright
Beyond his iconic Fallingwater, few of us know anything about the gardens and landscapes that were always an important part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision.
Now Derek Fell, the renowned garden photographer, sets out to change all that in The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s a beautiful and informative book, and any gardener with a taste for art, history, or nature will find plenty to like in it.
Be sure to check out the photos of our ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias and Wright’s favorite flower, tiger lilies, at Taliesin, Wright’s home and studio in rural Wisconsin.
Tiger lilies, which are native to Japan and have been pictured in the country’s art for centuries, may have reminded Wright of the months he lived there during the construction of his landmark Imperial Hotel.
Dahlias figured in one of the saddest episodes of Wright’s life. While he was away from Taliesin, his live-in companion, Mamah Cheney, and her two young children were murdered in a fire set by an employee gone berserk. The next morning as Wright walked among the smoldering ruins with a Chicago Tribune reporter, “a crushed dahlia flower attracted his attention and seemed to raise his spirits. He picked up the flower and stirred the earth around its roots to give the plant a new lease on life.”
Later, Wright “gathered all the flowers he could salvage from the garden and made piles of dinner-plate dahlias, summer phlox, long-stemmed zinnias, and armloads of peppery-scented nasturtiums” to fill Mrs. Cheney’s casket.
For the last twenty years of his life, Monet painted only one subject: his gardens in Giverny.
Many bulbs played a leading role there, and it seems his taste for bulbs was shaped, at least in part, by financial difficulties in his early years.
In Monet: The Gardener (2002), Sidney Eddison writes: “Today, water lilies continue to float on the pond at Giverny. In May, irises in every imaginable shade of blue and violet bloom in their long, narrow beds; in June, roses smother the metal arches along the front walk. By midsummer, gladioli stand tall among the nasturtiums, which have begun their headlong rush toward the middle of the path. And in the fall, dahlias lavish their rich colors on the beds.”
In the same book, Robert Gordon writes of Monet’s early career: “Given his precarious finances and the temporary nature of his abodes, many of the plants he chose were annuals ... or corms, such as gladiolus, which can be dug up in the fall and saved from year to year.
“At Argenteuil, Monet planted gladiolus corms by the hundreds. In a painting simply titled Gladioli of 1876, ... [Monet’s wife] Camille ... gazes wistfully at cheerful ranks of pink, red, and bicolor flowers.... Two years later, in a work depicting Monet’s new garden at Vetheuil, gladioli appear again, but this time growing in decorative blue-and-white ceramic containers — a reminder of the impermanent nature of these early gardens. The same containers ultimately found a home at Giverny.”