When I visited the Timaru Botanic Gardens last year to take photos of the Robbie Burns statue I also took some of the colourful dahlia border that was still blooming profusely well into autumn. As we are settling in for the long lockdown ahead I thought it might be interesting to find out a little of the history about these beautiful and reliable garden performers. They are such a cheerful summer/autumn addition to a home garden, blousy, bold and available in an amazing variety of colours as well as being easy peasy as to grow. Dahlias originated in the mountain regions of Mexico and Guatemala and they still thrive there today. Before the time of the Aztecs not much is known about them but it is recorded that the Aztecs used parts of the dahlia for food and medicine.
In the 1570’s King Phillip ll of Spain sent a botanist, Francisco Hernandez, to Mexico to study the natural resources of the country and he described plants that resembled dahlias at that time. However it wasn’t until 1789 that plant parts were sent from the Botanical Garden at Mexico to the Royal gardens of Madrid in Spain. From there culture and propagation began and 3 new plant forms were grown. The genus was named after a Swedish botanist, Andreas Dahl.
Seed and plant parts from the dahlias were sent throughout Europe from the early 1800’s and hybridization work continued. Double forms and colour variations resulted and captured the imagination and passion of plant breeders throughout Europe.
Continued propagation and development of the earlier crosses resulted in the first modern dahlia hybrids being created around 1929. These new hybrids were easy to grown and hybridize so they quickly became very popular in European and American home gardens.
Throughout the 1800s and 1900s thousands of new forms were developed and all of these new dahlia forms were hybridized from at least two, possibly all three of the original Dahlia species sent from Mexico in 1789.
The dahlia we know today has one of the largest variations of form, colour and size of any flower grown and every year there are new varieties being developed and released constantly. It remains the National Flower of Mexico where its beauty, as well as usefulness, was first discovered by the Aztec Indians so long ago.
We have our very own local dahlia specialists, Alistair and Joan Davey. Alistair was 13 years old when his great uncle gave him his first dahlia and that gift sparked a lifelong passion for these remarkable flowers. Have a look through his website, www.daveygardens.com and while away an hour or so plotting where you can perhaps squeeze one into your garden after this long winter ends.
Keep well and safe, Karen Rolleston
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