Plants, like people, come and go in our lives. Sometimes an odd jostling of our memories bring back to us people and plants we had forgotten. So, last week when we talked about zinnias, mentioning that some are known as dahlia flowered zinnias, I said to myself, “Hmm, dahlias. Maybe Nacogdoches folks would like to learn about growing dahlias.”
My first introduction to dahlias was via Mary Lois Dunn who lived with her mother on Nelson Street. Mary was a retired elementary school librarian and children’s book author when I met her. She and her mother were keen gardeners, with a nice vegetable garden just north of their home. The Dunns liked to feed the birds, had quick minds, and grew dahlias along with their vegetables. Mary said she traditionally bought her mom dahlia tubers every year for Christmas. Thus, my introduction to the exotic dahlia.
Dahlias come in an absolutely amazing assortment. Thousands of different cultivars have been introduced by specialty dahlia growers into the market over the years. But somehow in my mind, I thought dahlias were just about too pretty for Nacogdoches. They seemed out of place here in ‘rough and tumble’ East Texas. I said to myself, “The Dunns might grow dahlias, but the common Nacogdoches citizen probably couldn’t or wouldn’t bother with such an unusual plant.”
Over the years the Dunns slipped out of my life . as age caught up with them, and I didn’t give dahlias a second thought when I saw them in gardening catalogs. But then new folks appeared in my life. Patsy Hallman, a fellow board member of Friends of Historic Nacogdoches, Inc., would periodically mention the dahlias that grew prolifically in her landscape. Patsy grew dahlias on a much larger scale than had the Dunns. I have emails from Patsy reading, “I had over 60 blooms today…” etc. Patsy wasn’t planting a mere 4 or 5 tubers purchased from the catalog during the Christmas season. She was growing crops of dahlias. So, Patsy gave me a few tubers this last winter, and they bloomed in my walled garden this spring; and, my goodness, dahlias are showy! My family is fairly jaded about my gardening. It’s hard to impress them, so when they mention something growing in the garden with “Wow! That’s pretty”, I take note.
As I said, dahlias seemed too good to be true. They come in all sizes: some plants growing quite tall (up to 8’) and some staying rather small (under 8”). And they come with blooms of seemingly every color in the rainbow, except blue. The different shapes of the flowers seem as if they were designed at the Disney Movie Studios. The blooms are quite often simply fantastic.
Originally, dahlias are from South America and were named for the botanist Andreas Dahl in the late 1700s. The Spanish were the first to bring dahlias to the Old World where they were grown in royal botanical gardens across Europe. Now dahlias are normally thought of as an ornamental plant, but originally they were grown by the Aztec as a food crop.
If you would grow dahlias here in Nacogdoches, you will probably have to begin by buying tubers in the winter (the way Ms Dunn did) from a gardening catalog and then setting the tubers out in the spring, about the same time you would put out tomatoes. Or if you’re lucky, Patsy (or a dahlia grower you may know) may give you a tuber or two to set out in the spring.
A few words from Patsy on growing dahlias. The soil must have very good drainage. Patsy’s dahlias grow on a slight incline which means the plants’ feet never stand in water-logged soil. Heavy, wet soil will mean death to dahlias. Her dahlias have basically two bloom seasons; they are blooming now. Patsy said she had over 30 blooms just the other day. Once it gets hot, the plants will stop producing flowers and that is when she cuts them back pretty severely. After that they will have another bloom cycle in September/October. The first frost then will kill every thing of the plant above ground. Patsy does not dig her dahlia tubers every year. She leaves them in the ground, and they return every spring. Patsy grows her dahlias where they are protected from the hot, west sun. I think this is an important point. Even though dahlias are South American in origin, they really don’t like being planted where they have to face the roasting, Texas afternoon sun.
I think dahlias, having gone from my life and now having reappeared, will have a permanent place in my landscape. This next winter when the gardening catalogs appear in my mailbox, I will be on the prowl for cactus flowered white dahlias that will look, when they actually grow in my garden, as if they were planted and grown by some Disney animated character on the far off planet Zanzabar. The Grandkids will love them!
The dahlias’ first appearance in my garden draws approving comments from everyone who sees them.