Rediscovering Heirloom Dahlias

Drawn to the rich colors of the Victorian flower varieties, this heirloom gardener is carefully breeding and recreating forgotten heirloom dahlias.

| Fall 2012

Dahlias have something over most other flowers: They are happy bloomers, and they fill the garden with a riot of unusual colors not easily replicated because the shades and intensity change with the season, growing more and more intense as fall approaches.

I think it was the discovery of those rare old Victorian colors that first attracted me to heirloom dahlias. Frankly, today’s trendiest varieties are garish and unimaginative, a “look” so gracelessly cookie-cutter perfect; I said to myself surely I can do better than this! The problem was, in order to grow dahlias like the varieties appearing in old seed catalogs, I would have to breed them from scratch.

Most gardeners are not aware that the extraordinary dahlias of the past are mostly extinct. There are only a handful of varieties like ‘White Aster’ (1879) and ‘Union Jack’ (1882) dating from before 1900 and many of the famous ones from the golden age of dahlia breeding in the 1920s and 1930s are gone forever.

One of the largest collections of those old dahlias was located in Germany, and during World War II that collection was mostly destroyed. Collectors have managed to cobble together a fair representation of some of the classics like ‘Jersey’s Beauty’, the first of the large flowering types that appeared in 1923; just the same, many pieces of the story are still missing, and the only way to replace them is to go back to breeding look-alikes.

I have been doing this for about eight years now, first as a hobby just to see what I could accomplish. My first success was ‘Roughwood Jenny’ (2004), a cute little orange-yellow pixie dahlia that came out of an heirloom called appropriately enough ‘Little Beeswings’. Today this hobby has become a serious passion, and I hope in the near future to find a way to give my dahlias — I call them “my girls” — much broader exposure because as landscape accents, the Victorian types present a decorative style that is unique.

While it is true that most Victorian dahlia admirers were locked into a mindset that considered pompom dahlias the only perfect form of the flower, there were many other shapes which did not look like dahlias at all; rather they resembled large daisies, or anemones, or cosmos, water lilies, even sunflowers (to which dahlias are related). And those dahlias are an unexplored area in creative breeding. Some of my re-creations, like ‘Roughwood Janet’ (2005) and ‘Roughwood Lisa’ (2006), are tall, long-stemmed prolific bloomers that make eye-catching backdrops for other sorts of flowers down in front.

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