The sun in the sky, the jewel in the crown, the apple of the gardener’s eye... what would it be but a dahlia? These tender, tuberous perennials own autumn. Beginning their display as early as July, the riotous carnival of colour they command crescendos right through until the frosts in November. The range of shades and variety of forms is incomprehensible and unmatchable; it is practically impossible to do dahlias justice!
Originating in Mexico, they first came to Britain in 1798 and immediately rose to the height of fashion amongst the aristocracy. Yet as the 20th century progressed they became like marmite: lots had a love-hate relationship with dahlias - they sadly fell out of fashion. Most cruelly deemed them too gaudy and old-fashioned for the modern garden. But dahlias have made a comeback, and now they frequent flower shows and Instagram feeds more than any other late summer flower. Dahlias are here to stay, and no garden should be without them.
The epitome of late summer and early autumn is now: the moment for dahlias. The tasks they demand at the moment are minimal: deadheading, feeding and admiring. Planting happens in spring and staking early summer, yet it is important to plan your dahlias for the coming season while the previous year’s are still in bloom. Taking pictures and visiting garden allows you to take note of particular varieties you like or dislike, what works well and what would suit your space?
There are 42 species of dahlias but innumerable hybrids, and more and more are bred by the year. Yet there are a few reliable dahlias that are sure to impress; there is a dahlia to match everyone and anyone’s taste. Soft, pastel colours are “in” at the moment, but why not swap the common ‘Café au lait’ for the lesser known ‘Emory Paul,’ ‘Evanah’ or ‘Penhill Watermelon.’ All of which are huge, flamboyant and decorative dahlias the size of dinner plates. Single dahlias are much more preferrable for the pollinators, and if you seek to make your garden more wildlife friendly in 2023 why not try ‘Strawberry Bon Bon,’ ‘Honka Fragile,’ ‘Lou Farman’ or ‘Bishop’s Children.’ Cactus dahlias are the favourites of many, and varieties such as ‘Karma Lagoon,’ ‘Mel’s Orange Marmalade’ or the more unusual ‘Hollyhill Spiderwoman’ never fail to impress. If a more architectural dahlia is more appealing, try pompon ‘Stolze von Berlin’ and ‘Small World’ or ball dahlia ‘Burlesca’ – all of which will amaze with their symmetricity. Anemone flowered ‘Totally Tangerine’ and ‘Blue Bayou’ are stunning in the intricacy of their composure.
One could list hundreds of dahlias that are worthy of a place in your garden, and even the most passionate and experienced growers are constantly coming across new varieties. They can suit any colour palette, from dark and rich to soft and warm and sharp and cool. Commanding lots of space per individual plant, dahlias are not the most compliant of companion plants. However, easy-going late-flowering annuals such as cosmos, calendula and cobaea scandens and even grasses like panicum ‘frosted explosion’ work brilliantly.
Dahlias make excellent cut flowers. Lasting a minimum of 5 days in a vase, the more you pick the more you get: they will provide for bouquets and arrangements for months. They also make great container plants, border plants and their petals are edible in salads – is there really anything that dahlias can’t do?