The dahlia is the national flower of Mexico, which isn’t that surprising considering that they were first discovered in the mountainous areas of Mexico. They are respected and well known for their incredible beauty, long blooming seasons, wide spectrum of colour (ranging in all shades and combinations except blue and black), and their medicinal and nutritional values.
There are over 1700 named varieties and species of dahlia that have been cultivated and grown over the years since it first bloomed in Europe in 1789. If the tubers (bulbs/roots) are planted in late spring, expect to be met with an array of colours, sizes and shapes of dahlia from mid-July or early August right through until the first heavy frost. There are around 10 to 75 blooms per tuber, depending on the bloom size. The flower diameter can be anything from under 2 inches right up to 12 inches, depending on its type.
Dahlias are separated into groups by their shape and bloom. Within each of these groups there are many different varieties that have been named upon appearance, colour or even after a person. Here are the groups with some examples of variety: Incurve Cactus (Dantino, Tanjoh), Semi-Cactus (Fringed Star, Park Princess), Straight Cactus (Rip City, Nigaro), Formal Decorative (Heatwave, Gypsy Girl), Informal Decorative (Dark Magic, Matchmaker), Pompon (Kasasagi, Stone Joyce), Single (Servina, Que Sera), Stellar (Cadet, Camano Pet), Ball (Jessie G, Nettie), Miniature Ball (Aurora’s Kiss, Sea-Miss), Collarette (Jack-O-Lantern, Sumas Beauty), Lacinated (Marlene Joy, Crystal Anne), Peony-flowering (Fascination, Enrique), Water Lily (Figurine, Star Surprise), Novelty (Pagoda, Shooting Star), Anemone-flowering (Asahi Chohji Bridesmaid), Orchid-flowering (Wine Frost, Alpen Wonder) and finally the Mignon Single (Baby Red, Bonne Esperance).
The Aztecs were the first to discover the dahlia’s beauty. They used the flower in many ceremonial occasions, for decorating garments and homes and inspiring artists over the years. Symbolically, the Moctezuma and his nobles wore them to represent the solar system but mainly the dahlias were cultivated by the Aztecs to provide food and medicine. As a food the petals were used in salads and the tubers were cooked as a vegetable (a bit like a potato), which has a bitter taste. The sweet part of the tuber, the dacopa, was used as a beverage or as a flavouring – it can be mixed with hot or cold water to create a sweet drink.
Medicinally, the dahlia has antibiotic compounds concentrated in the skin of the tubers which proved invaluable during the first world war and in the days before insulin was discovered. Diabetics were often given a substance called ‘Atlantic starch’ or ‘diabetic sugar’, which was made from dahlia tubers. Atlantic starch is still used today in chemicals to help test the functionality of the kidneys and liver.
Today the dahlia flower is enjoyed much more for its beauty than for its many uses. They’re a great choice for gardens, arrangements and bouquets.