Delectable Dahlias

dahliaHurrah! … it is a frost!–the dahlias are dead.
~~R.S. Surtees, Handley Cross, 1843
(Note: Not my sentiments on this topic)

It isn’t too late to write about dahlias yet, although I fear I’m pushing it.

This is a plant, I confess, that I did not learn to love until I became a photographer. The dinner-plate size specimens still leave me a bit unmoved. Most other varieties will stop me in my tracks, however, even when the light is harsh and unforgiving, for their sheer exuberance and late summer/fall color.

One of the most exotic flowers we grow here – although not necessarily hardy through the winter without special treatment, dahlias are native to Mexico (where they are the national flower), Central America  and Colombia. (Later this month, when I travel to “Colonial Mexico’s Heartland” on a photo workshop, I’ll see if I can find any still in bloom!) Dahlias are  tuberous, bushy perennial plants that have been hybridized and prized for their varied colors and shapes (water lily, pompom, semi-cactus, and collerette types are only a few of the many classes that have been established). More recently, dwarf varieties have been developed that don’t require staking. Some (like Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’) have exotic black stems.

Dahlias begin blooming in mid to late summer and continue into the fall. Several years ago, on a hot August morning, I made my way out to a “dahlia trial garden” in semi-rural Montgomery County at an agricultural farm. Eventually, I came across rows of carefully-staked dahlias, wet with dew. None of them were labeled, but I didn’t care – it was love at first sight.

pink dahlia

This unamed variety of lavender dahlia, along with the flower above, were my favorites at the dahlia trial garden.

Since then I’ve photographed them at Chanticleer, in the Cutting Garden and the Tennis Court Garden, on their own or complementing other fall plantings, with or without the occasional bee,

Orange single dahlia

A trio of dahlias in the Tennis Court Garden at Chanticleer last fall

Chanticleer, Tennis Court Garden, dahlias

Orange dahlias (of a different type) with grasses and solidago at Chanticleer, in fall

and in other gardens, most recently at Hollister House in Connecticut, where ‘Bishop of Llandalf’ brightened several borders.

Hollister House, Bishop of Llandalf dahlias

Near the Silver Border, red Bishop of Llandaff dahlias add color to fall plantings at Hollister House in central Connecticut.

Dahlias grow best in sandy well drained soil in full sun (planting them in wet soils may cause the tubers to rot). Hardy from zones 7-11, they will probably not overwinter here in most cases. But if you have a cool, dry spot in your basement or elsewhere in the house, you can cut the plants back and dig the tubers up after the first killing frost. Clean the tubers, dry them, and then store them in a dark, dry, cool place until the next spring, when you can plant them out after the ground temperature warms up to 58 – 60 degrees.

Do you have a favorite type? Are you dedicated enough to overwinter your tubers? (if so, my hat is off to you.) Let me know. In the meantime, I’m off in search of the last dahlia of the season . . .

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6 Comments on “Delectable Dahlias”


  1. Beautiful! I love your last two shots especially. ;>)


  2. Beautiful photos, as usual!

  3. Melissa Says:

    Thanks, Allan and Carol, for the kind words. I’ve enjoyed seeing how these flowers – stunning on their own – can be successfully incorporated into border plantings.

  4. John Says:

    Thanks for your praise of the Dahlia. It is ironic that this flower that is only marginally hardy in our area looks it’s very best just before the last frost. Often in mid-season, where they would be splendid in Seattle or England, I find them eaten by insects or growing petals asymmetrically. It’s only now that they produce these vivid colors and attain such fine form with dewdrops hanging off the edges. Sadly I find that I put in the Bishops so late this year that they got delayed by the drought and may not even flower unless we have a really late frost (one can always dream).

    • Melissa Says:

      Excellent observations, John. I’m impressed that you grow dahlias! I found my “last of the season” ones the other day in – of all places – a hell strip in the District on Ordway Street, N.W., looking quite nice. Good luck with the Bishops.

  5. Joel Hoffman Says:

    Great work and wonderful article. See you at Kents–


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