Beware the Dahlia

The dahlia has captured the eye of many a gardener throughout the ages, but these edible flowers have an appeal that's more than just skin deep.

| Spring 2015

Beware the dahlia; this flower possesses a bewitching beauty with a penchant for stealing the hearts of gardeners. Opening your garden gates to this indomitable muse will no doubt wreak havoc on the herbaceous hierarchy. Dahlias have an uncanny ability to ensnare even the most diverse gardener. Once under the dahlias spell, gardeners will find themselves feverishly turning over extra space to accommodate multiple varieties. With so many colors, sizes and forms, who can plant just one?

The dahlia has come a long way to reign supreme in gardens across the globe. Wild ancestors grew in the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala, where it was considered a food and water source (the stems are quite watery). A popular myth says the dahlia was Montezuma’s favorite flower and could be found growing in his stunning gardens. In actuality, the wild dahlia did not enrapture the Aztecs. Perhaps because they grew so prolifically, they were considered a useful weed rather than a stunning ornamental.

Francisco Hernandez was the physician to Phillip II of Spain. He was sent to Mexico in 1570 to study the natural resources of the area. There he observed a useful flowering plant that the indigenous peoples both foraged and cultivated for a food crop, as well as a water source. This is considered the first written description of the flower called “Acocotli” (meaning water pipe flower) by the Aztecs. The name dahlia would not come about for another 200 years.

Although Francisco Hernandez is credited with the first description and illustration of the dahlia, there is an earlier illustration that some believe to be a description of the dahlia. As a result of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the mid-1500s, the college of Santa Cruz was established and dedicated to the education of Aztec boys. Likely, the first book on the medicinal plants of the new world was written here by two Aztec students. The Badianus Manuscript contained several colored illustrations of New World medicinal plants, including what some believe to be the wild dahlia. However, the illustration and description are not considered accurate enough to confirm that the authors were referring to the dahlia. Unbelievably, the Badianus Manuscript was lost for 400 years until it was rediscovered in 1931 at the Vatican Library.

In the 200 years since the beginning of Spanish occupation, the dahlia is believed to have been cultivated in the botanical gardens of Mexico City. It was not until the late 1700s that the director of the Mexico City Botanical Garden sent dahlia seeds to the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid. Just three varieties of dahlias were sent to Madrid (there are over 42 species). Each was planted and named within the genus Dahlia, which was named for the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl.

The dahlia craze got off to a slow start in Europe, possibly because the initial intention of many breeders was to develop dahlias as a food crop. The first dahlias sent to Europe did not catch the eye of plant breeders; the flowers were not considered particularly striking. However, by the early 18th century the first double forms were introduced. Once breeders discovered the astounding range of genetic diversity the dahlia became very popular, with only a brief lull in popularity in the mid-1800s. Since then, breeders have created a boundless spectrum of forms and colors; we now enjoy over 20,000 named dahlia breeds. Dahlias owe this extraordinary genetic diversity to what is called polyploidy. Dahlias are octoploids, which means they have eight sets of homologous chromosomes; this is four times the number of chromosome pairs that most plants have. This results in a wide range of genetic expression that includes many colors and forms.

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