From the mountainous regions of Mexico to the Kensington garden of Lady Holland, the dahlia has had a rich and varied past. They’ve fallen in and out of fashion but over the last few years, they have experienced a revival. I never used to like dahlias – brightly coloured with no smell, I ignored the endless catalogues which landed on my doorstep. But times change – and now I’m in love.

HISTORY OF THE DAHLIA

The history of the dahlia dates back to the Aztecs in sixteenth century Mexico. It remains their National Flower.

The Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis aka Badianus Manuscript, 1552

Scholars have argued whether a herbal written in 1552 by an ‘Indian physician’ contains the first known illustration of a dahlia. Written in Nahuatl – the language of the Aztecs – the work was translated into Latin by a fellow student of the College of Santa Cruz in Tlalatilulco. The drawing is entitled Cohuanenepilli or ‘serpent tongue’, and the text describes how the stem can be used in the treatment of urinary infections. There are no tubers in the painting so many have doubted whether this is a dahlia. However, as the roots were not part of the remedy, I think it is probable that the artist was not given the whole plant to draw but just the stem and flower.

The Manuscript is now held in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City.

Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus, 1615

In 1570, Francesco Hernandez was sent by King Phillip II of Spain to record the flora and fauna of Mexico. Impressed by the ‘refreshing’ gardens of the Aztecs, Hernandez stayed for seven years. In his Thesaurus – published posthumously – there are three sketches of the dahlia. Called by their Nahuatl names, acoctli and cocoxochitl, the words mean hollow-stemmed plant and water-cone respectively. It is not known if these plants were growing wild on the mountainous slopes of Mexico or were cultivated specimens.

From Mexico to Madrid, 1789

Over a hundred years later, seeds were sent by the Botanical Garden in Mexico to Antonio Cavanilles of the Royal Gardens of Madrid. Cavanilles grew three new plant forms – D. pinnata, D. rosa and D. coccinea – and named the genus after the Swedish botanist, Andreas Dahl.

In 1798, dried specimens were given by Lady Bute to the Botanic Garden at Kew but the first seeds did not arrive in England until 1803. Sent from Madrid by Lord Holland for his wife’s garden in Kensington, the dahlias were flowering by the following year. Henry Charles Andrews visited Holland House in 1804 and includes a delicate and beautiful painting of D. pinnata in his Botanist’s Repository,

1800s to today

In 1800s, thousands of new forms were developed. Mr Miller of Bristol exhibited at the 1826 Ross Horticultural Show his ‘new seedling, double dahlia which for size, colour and form, surpasses any yet grown’. The Victorians loved dahlias and the Horticultural Society (later RHS) dedicated its September show to dahlias. They proved so popular that in 1881, the National Dahlia Society was formed. By 1936, 14,000 cultivars were recognised while today there around 50,000 named varieties.

And if you get really keen, build your very own Wickerwork Dahlia Protector. With wonderful instructions from ‘Foreign Notices’ in The Gardener’s Magazine of 1841:

The Wickerwork Dahlia Protector is made of wickerwork, and consists of an inverted shallow basket, to which is attached a tube made of the same material, through which the dahlia stick is passed, and a peg being inserted between the stick and the tube, it is firmly secured at any height required. It measures 12 in. in diameter in the widest part, and is SJ [sic] in. in depth.

And if anyone is inventive enough to build one, please send me a photo.

At the end of the article, you will also find details on Where to Buy dahlias.

Dahlias burst into flower with their spectacular shapes and dazzling colours from the end of July until the first frosts. Some are planted in blocks of colours while others form part of the border.

Dahlias in the Walled Garden at Kelmarsh

And here are eight gardens to enjoy them at their best:

Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire The Dahlia Garden was created by Lord Fairhaven in 1952. The curved bed has around 80 varieties of dahlia arranged in blocks of colour while others are planted in the Formal Garden.

 

Pink dahlia with darker swirls

Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire has the Dahlia Walk which was looking spectacular when I visited in September last year. James Bateman bought Biddulph Grange in 1841 and with his wife Maria Egerton-Warburton and their friend Edward William Cooke created a garden to reflect the spirit of the Victorian age. The Dahlia Walk is divided into different colour charts and are separated by dramatic yew buttresses. At the far end of the Walk is the Shelter House or viewing platform.

If you would like to see more photos of the garden, click here: Biddulph Grange

The Dahlia Walk at Biddulph Grange

Cragside in Northumberland Cragside was designed by Norman Shaw in 1864 and later enlarged for Sir William George Armstrong, 1st Lord Armstrong. Known as the ‘Magician of the North’, Armstrong had five lakes built and planted over seven million trees and shrubs. In 1866, the Dahlia Border was planted on the top terraces by Henry Hudson, Head Gardener at Cragside.

Great Dixter in East Sussex is a great garden to enjoy colour-clashing dahlias at their best. Built around a fifteenth century manor house, Nathaniel Lloyd commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to enlarge the house in 1909. Lloyd’s son Christopher, gardener and garden writer, designed the garden – and it’s one of my favourite places to visit in England. Now under the stewardship of Fergus Garrett and the Great Dixter Charitable Trust, dahlias in all colours and shapes burst out of the borders.

If you would like to see more photos of the garden, click here: Great Dixter

Kelmarsh in Northamptonshire Every September, Kelmarsh has a Dahlia Festival in the Walled Garden. They also have a Dahlia bloom room although I’m not sure what this is as it was closed on my visit in August. William Hanbury commissioned James Gibbs to design Kelmarsh in 1728; it was completed by 1737. The gardens were redesigned in the twentieth century by Geoffrey Jellicoe for Nancy Lancaster while Norah Lindsey advised on the planting of the herbaceous borders.

If you would like to see more photos of the garden, click here: Kelmarsh

Dahlias in the Walled Garden at Kelmarsh

Nymans in West Sussex also has a wonderful display of dahlias. Ludwig Messel bought Nymans in 1890. He enlarged the house, laid out the gardens with advice from William Robinson of nearby Gravetye Manor and Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote. Wander around the Walled Garden and enjoy the dahlias flowering in the borders.

If you would like to see more photos of the garden, click here: Nymans

Rousham in Oxfordshire This delightful garden remains virtually untouched since it was designed by William Kent in 1733. Rousham was built in 1635 for Sir Robert Dormer and the house is still owned by the same family. The Dahlia Border was created in 1946 and many of the same 500 tubers that were first planted, still flower today.

If you would like to see more photos of the garden, click here: Rousham

The Vyne in Hampshire Dahlias have been flowering at The Vyne since the nineteenth century. One area of the Walled Garden is divided into 35 beds where dahlias from every classification group are grown. Chaloner Chute bought The Vyne from Lord Sandys (see Mottisfont) in 1653 and commissioned John Webb to redesign the house. Nothing remains of the garden from this period but look out for the magnificient Summerhouse in the Flower Garden which was also designed by Webb.

If you would like to see more photos of the garden, click here: The Vyne

Pink Dahlias growing
Dahlias flowering at Kelmarsh

HISTORY OF THE DAHLIA

 

Looking up at the house from the Dahlia Walk at Biddulph Grange

Where to Buy Dahlias

Here are four places where you can buy dahlias. If you are stuck for ideas of what colours or shapes to grow together, check out their Collections. And some of the websites also have useful information on how to grow dahlias.

And in case you are wondering, dahlias are classified by their flower forms. There are fourteen different groups.

Sarah Raven

National Dahlia Collection

Peter Nyssen

Gilberts Dahlias

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