There’s no doubt that the stars of the Black Shed flower farm at the moment are the dahlias! That dahlias are enjoying a comeback goes without saying but what triggered it I wonder? It started a few years back and shows no sign of abating. Some of my earliest memories are of lying under what were then towering dahlias in my Mother’s Surrey gardens. I can remember lurid yellow cactus style forms and even now recall comparing them to the wonderful rubber bathing hats that my Grandmother used to wear. There’s a fashion waiting to return!
Dahlias are native to Central and Northern South America and the tubers were used by the indigenous peoples as a starchy food crop. This use has died out, although there was an early attempt to introduce them into Europe as a vegetable, this did not meet with much success. Some tubers have a refreshing fennel or anise smell and it was this that tempted us to try them last year. We dug up and split all our dahlias last November and as a result ended up with an enormous quantity of spare tubers. So we tried cooking them. Thinking that they might behave like potatoes, we had to decide how to cook them. Should we boil, mash or roast them? Perhaps a Dahlia Gratin or Dauphinoise? In the end we roasted them. They took a while to soften, really rather a long while! When eventually they yielded to the touch, someone had to try them… me. Interesting texture, perhaps a bit fibrous but the taste! Oh dear, that’s not something I’ll forget in a hurry. Perhaps we chose the wrong variety. We chose the bride’s delight, the creamy and ethereal Cafe au Lait. For many people this is one of the ultimate dahlias. Not for those with a culinary bent though! The Cafes have been very late this year, I’m sure they’re sulking!
There are approximately 40 species of Dahlia but very few of them look anything like the Dahlias of our gardens. Most of the species have single flowers for a start and range in size from the diminutive to true giants, such as the orange Dahlia coccinea at well over 2 metres, to the truly vast Dahlia imperialis, which attains tree status in the very mildest parts of the country but which rarely flowers in the UK. There are no true doubles in nature, the first ones appeared quite soon as a cross between two species. These have been further bred by legions of dedicated growers in the last couple of centuries, sometimes in the gardens of stately homes but more often on the allotments of keen amateur growers the length and breadth of this country.
Dahlias are often thought of as rather vulgar and showy but in recent years, breeders have concentrated on creating garden worthy forms, far from the gangly showbench specimens of yore. Plants such as the handsome dark leaved and orange flowered David Howard and it’s near relation the flaming scarlet Bishop of Llandaff are worthy border plants for a hot themed bed. We’re not seeking this quality though, we’re looking for flowers that have excellent colour, form, stem length and most importantly vase life. Colour choices have shifted too. The garish colouring has gone, to be replaced by some really subtle and ravishing colourways, often an unlikely mix of colours which makes them especially useful in bouquets and arrangements where their mixes of hues help to pull together disparate colours in an arrangement. Some varieties are much better than others. The Karma series was bred for the vase, Karma Fuchsiana, a vivid psychedelic pink, Karma Choc, a velvety near black and Karma Serena, a pure and gorgeous white are all first class. Similarly any of the Jowey series are excellent cut flowers, with long stems and the most exquisite blooms in subtle shades of peach, coral, pink and apricot. They're probably my favourites, their mathematically perfect fibonacci spirals are so beautifully defined.
We grow about a couple of hundred types, all chosen for the vase, from the tiniest mini-poms, through the larger pom-poms, the starry cactus types right up to the outrageous ‘dinner-plate’ types such as our poor ill-fated Cafe au Laits. However if you want to see a truly enormous array of varieties, then a visit to The National Dahlia Collection in Longrock, near St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall may be in order. Be warned though, there’s nearly 2000 varieties and it takes a strong constitution to view and assess them all. That many different coloured varieties looks like an explosion in a paint factory, we had to take a break half way round to rest our poor eyeballs.
The things we do to bring you the best of British cut flowers!
©Paul Stickland This article was first published in The Sherborne Times September 2018