No cut-flower garden is complete without a row of spectacular, old-fashioned dahlias, says Lynda Hallinan.
When American decorating doyenne Martha Stewart chose hydrangeas as her flower of the new millennium, she instantly changed the fortunes of these shade-loving shrubs. Previously hydrangeas were considered a bit common – particularly in New Zealand, where they colonised our grandmothers’ gardens with contemptible familiarity – but Martha’s endorsement created a black market boom for stolen blooms, as hydrangea heists made headlines from Cape Cod to Boston.
Hydrangeas have remained popular since 2000, and deservedly so, but the undisputed darling of 2021 looks set to be the dahlia. That’s largely thanks to another influential American, the Insta-famous Washington State farmer-florist and best-selling author Erin “Floret Farm” Benzakein, whose new book is devoted to the diversity of these tuberous perennials.
“One thing I’ve learned when it comes to dahlias,” Erin writes in Floret Farm’s Discovering Dahlias: A guide to growing and arranging magnificent blooms (Chronicle Books, $49.99), “is that once you’ve been bitten by the bug, there’s no going back. They have a strangely magical quality that somehow ends up taking over your life in the most fun and beautiful way.”
I’ve adored dahlias for well over a decade but when it comes to embracing new trends – floral or otherwise – I tend to be a long-tailer rather than an early adopter. I was the last of my friends to join Facebook, get a tattoo or binge-watch Outlander, and, at the end of the flip-phone era, I couldn’t understand why anyone would need, let alone want, a smartphone that multitasked as a computer and camera.
And yet, it still came as a surprise to me that my devotion to dahlias had taken me fangirling in the opposite direction to fashion. While I was planting beds of easy-care collerette varieties, such as ‘Mary Eveline’ (pictured second from the bottom, at left), and butterfly- friendly, single-flowered seedlings, which bloom summer- long like daisies on steroids, giant decorative dahlias were taking social media – and bridal bouquets – by storm.
One dahlia to rule them all
When I got married 10 years ago, I carried a hefty bunch of mixed dahlias down the aisle. My rainbow bouquet was so big that I couldn’t bring myself to biff it at my bridesmaids for fear of causing a concussion. However, these days all the best-dressed brides are clutching a single sophisticated variety to their chests: ‘Café au Lait’.
A celebrity among dahlias, ‘Café au Lait’ is a blonde bombshell bearing dinner plate blooms on broom-handle stems in a single-shot latte colour that’s variously described as faded beige, creamy porcelain, ivory-peach, apricot-flushed or pale blush. Personally, its pastel petals remind of the pallid gills of the button mushrooms I forage for in our farm paddocks after the first autumn rains, but that’s not a particularly romantic association.
To be honest, when ‘Café au Lait’ first started hogging all the Insta-glory, I really couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Sure, it’s freakishly big and pretty in a flesh-pink lacy-lingerie sort of way, but all those petals are perplexing for bees to infiltrate and it can’t hold up its huge heads without an ugly scaffolding of supportive stakes down below.
Nonetheless, I eventually did succumb to plant-based peer pressure and impulse-purchased a bag of ‘Café au Lait’ tubers as soon as we were liberated from the Covid-19 Level Four lockdown last year. I slipped those tubers in at the back of my vegetable patch and, for months now, my ‘Café au Lait’ dahlias have been towering over the broccoli, herbs and potatoes, producing a steady stream of impossibly perfect blooms for picking. They are a joy to behold, either as a single specimen in a crystal vase on the bog cistern or in a big casual bunch in an Agee jar on my kitchen bench, and only the most unsentimental of fools could pretend not to be impressed.
Indeed, the only gardeners I know who don’t go gaga in the presence of such gorgeousness are people who (a) have never grown dahlias before or (b) are scared of the vast populations of earwigs that nibble their petals at night.
If you fancy a dahlia patch of your own, now’s the time to start ordering tubers from specialist mail-order suppliers such as dahliahaven.co.nz, nzbulbs.co.nz or bulbsdirect.co.nz. There are hundreds of flamboyant varieties to choose from in a staggering array of shapes and sizes, from petite pompoms to shaggy starbursts, in colour combinations both flashy and trashy.
It can be an expensive habit, going doolally over dahlias, but as the 17th-century Spanish poet and playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca once said, “When love is not madness, it is not love.”