The Story of the Dahlia

If I had to label flowers as members of a royal family, I would have to start with my favorite flower-the rose.  Rose would be the queen of the garden.  Lilies would be the knights. Begonias, tulips, daffodils and freesias would be the princes, princesses and ladies in waiting.  Which flower would be king you ask?  That would be the dahlia.  Dahlia has to be the king of the garden.  With its huge selection of flowers in a myriad of colours, shapes, styles, and heights, dahlia is the King of the Summer Garden.

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Dahlias are tubers that look like potato tubers. From these tubers grow dahlia stalks that produce beautiful dahlia blooms. While many flowers have a hard time handling the hot summer temperatures, dahlias thrive and pump out non-stop blooms all summer long.

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I have this awesome book titled Strangers in the Garden. The Secret Lives of Our Favorite Flowers by Andrew Smith that gives the history and origins of popular flowers, and how they ended up in our home gardens.  One of the chapters is on Dahlias, titled Curse of the Dahlia. Bloody human sacrifices, a duped smuggler, and a possessive empress mark the dahlia’s stormy passage to fame and fortune.  This chapter is extensive and traces the lore, significance, and history of the dahlia as a favored flower all over the world, starting from Mexico, then to Spain, France, Germany, and to England.

Andrew Smith is such a theatrical writer that he makes the story of the dahlia come alive as if the flower were a person, a tumultuous person at that, too.  When you read the chapter on the dahlia flower, you can picture a blockbuster Hollywood movie on the story of this flower.

“Some people find dahlias distasteful. Their fulsome blooms, top-heavy with an excess of petals, are considered vulgar….the conspicuous flaunting of so much provocative beauty can evoke a sense of foreboding. Perhaps the flower, nurtured and loved by tragic Empress Josephine, who traded on her looks but lost Napoleon, is destined to be suffused forever with her jealous melancholy. Certainly the brutal destruction of a sophisticated civilization paved the way for the dahlia’s introduction to the West. Oh, the troubles it’s seen!”  from Strangers in the Garden. The Secret Lives of Our Favorite Flowers.  by Andrew Smith.

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The origins of the dahlia date back to the Aztecs who called themselves Mexica.  This region is today part of Mexico and Guatemala. During the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors arrived here and in addition to conquering the Aztecs, they also brought with them botanists, whose jobs were to bring back plants from the New World for Spain.

The dahlia was The War Flower to the Aztecs, also known as the Dahlia coccinea. It was called the War Flower based on a myth surrounding the plant.  The Aztec gardeners recounted the myth to Spanish botanist Francisco Hernandez: “The Earth Goddess Serpent Woman was ordered by the sky gods to impale a flower of Dahlia coccinea on the sharp point of a maguey leaf and to hold both to her heart all night. The next morning she gave birth to Uizilopochti, he was god, fully grown, fully armed, and with a thirst for blood from the flowers’ eight blood-red rays.”  The flower here is the dahlia and the maguey leaf is the leaf of the agave plant.

The Aztecs also shared with Spanish botanists the Dahlia imperialis, which was known as the Hollow Pipe. This was a tree dahlia that grew to heights of 20 feet or more.  The Aztecs used the hollow stems of these dahlia plants to construct an aqueduct of sorts to carry water over long distances.

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Xociphilli. The Aztec God of flowers

What is fascinating is that Aztecs shared with Spanish botanists knowledge of dahlia hybridization as well.  The Aztecs had knowledge of how to breed and hybridize dahlias, how to create multiple varieties, and they classified dahlias based on color, fragrance, shape and form, thus demonstrating their advanced botanical knowledge.  Aztecs grew hundreds of varieties of dahlias and used them for medicinal purposes.

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The story of how Empress Josephine became the champion of the dahlia flower in Europe is an interesting one as well. According to Andrew Smith, as the 18th century came to an end, the Spanish were entrenched in Mexico and they had a monopoly on a particular dye that was uniquely found in Mexico in the Mexican carmine grana insect. The female dried insects were used to make an intense red dye known as cochineal. At this time, French tapestry and fabrics were well known for their craftsmanship all over Europe, and the French needed this intense red dye to enhance their fabric. As the French got tired of relying on the Spanish to supply them with this coveted red dye, the French Minister to Mexico decided to smuggle a few of the carmine grana insects to France. Along with this shipment of insects inadvertently came a large batch of dahlia tubers. When this shipment arrived in France, the insects had died but the dahlia tubers survived. Interestingly the Mexicans the French Minister bribed to smuggle the insects used dahlia tubers on purpose instead of cactus plants. Without the juicy cactus leaves to chew on, the insects died leaving only dahlia tubers in the shipment.

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But the French Minister turned this disaster into an opportunity. He offered these dahlia tubers to Empress Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Queen at the time.  Empress Josephine was an avid gardener. She had a life long love of flowers from a young age and grew an extensive array of plants and flowers. Under her expertise, these dahlia tubers thrived and bloomed prolifically. They soon became the envy of everyone. But she guarded these dahlia plants and wanted them to be exclusively hers. However a Polish Count who was visiting her home bribed a lady in waiting and one of the gardeners to dig up over 100 dahlia plants and took them with him. Empress Josephine was so angry at this thievery and at the loss of her exclusivity to these sought after dahlias, that she ordered all the remainder of the dahlia tubers to be dug up and ground into mulch.

Soon after her death at the age of 51, Josephine’s dahlias became more common and a popular plant in Germany. By 1826, over 60 varieties were recorded.

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It is the British however that embraced the dahlia and took it to the next level of popularity. Dahlias worked perfectly within the flamboyant Victorian style of gardening and gardeners started using them extensively in English landscapes. Dahlias became even more sought after, and by the 1900s, Dahlia Societies had started forming all over England to hold dahlia competitions for who could grow the biggest and best dahlia. Today the dahlia is as popular as ever all over the world.

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In Mexico where the dahlia originated, the dahlia has been designated as the national flower of Mexico.

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Dahlia tubers are available from mutliple web sites online and you can also purchase fully grown dahlia plants in the summer from your local nurseries. Try growing dahlias for yourself.  You will be surprised at their prolific supply of non-stop blooms in the warm summer months.  When the rest of the garden is frying and looking sad from all that scorching heat, it is a welcome sight to see gorgeous boisterous dahlias in bloom in the summer garden.

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For more information on the dahlia flower and stories in this article, these are the books and sites I referenced.  “Strangers in the Garden. The Secret Lives of Our Favorite Flowers” by Andrew Smith.   National Flower of Mexico  Xochipilli. the Aztec god of Flowers

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