A Drama of Dahlias

As far as I am aware, and please enlighten me should I be mistaken, there is not a collective noun for a group of dahlias. I have taken this terrible oversight into my own hands and, having considered ‘a dazzle’, ‘a blast’ and ‘a riot’, I’ve settled on ‘a drama’, summing up the dahlia’s extraordinarily ostentatious, extrovert blooms. Should anyone be unconvinced my choice, take a look at Dahlia ‘Black Monarch’ below and tell me I am wrong.

The dark, velvety blooms of Dahlia 'Black Monarch' echo the interior of a West End theatre
The dark, velvety blooms of D. ‘Black Monarch’ have all the glamour of a vintage Hollywood movie

It’s quite right that dahlias should once again take their place in gardeners’ affections. For a while during the 90’s and early 00’s, they fell from favour. Many gardeners considered them too gaudy, vulgar, ugly and overblown to be worthy of their borders. Increasingly absorbed in composing ‘tasteful’ planting schemes, middle class gardeners struggled to find any place for them amongst finer, blowsier perennials. This was the same sad malady that befell gladioli and chrysanthemums, other flowers commonly grown on allotments or for showing.

Dahlias like 'A La Mode' are very much in vogue
Bi-coloured dahlias such as ‘A La Mode’ are very much in vogue again

It was one variety, the single-flowered D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, that helped dahlias return to social acceptability. Hardly new to horticulture, D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit back in 1928, but was to save the whole genus from horticultural turpitude. The simple red flowers with their bright yellow centres, rising above finely-cut bronze foliage, appealed to the staunchest dahlia snobs. They quickly found a place for this free-form hybrid in their rarefied planting schemes, using it more as a perennial than a showstopper. D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ was helped by its ability to make great associations with other plants, looking good in front of purple-leaved cotinus and with crocosmias, cannas and lime green Nicotiana langsdorfiiThe veteran hybrid’s new found popularity gave rise to a psalter of bishops (a fine collective noun) and even a seed strain known as ‘Bishop’s Children’.

Single-flowered dahlias remain in vogue, and in recent years I have grown varieties from the ‘Happy Single’ series and D. ‘Marie Schnugg’ below. I would love to grow species such as single pink D. merckii and orangey red D. coccinea var palmeri, but these are both giants of the dahlia world and too demanding of space and sun for my tiny garden. The Twynings series is also worth exploring, especially for the white-flowered, black-leaved D. ‘Twyning’s After Eight’.

The star-like blooms of D. 'Marie Schnugg' are similar to the native dahlias of Mexico and Guatemala
The star-like blooms of D. ‘Marie Schnugg’ are similar to the native dahlias of Mexico and Guatemala

There are fourteen classes of dahlia, defined by flower shape, listed on the National Dahlia Society’s website. They include pompon, cactus, anemone and fancy colarettes, such as D. ‘Carstone Firebox’ at the top of this post. I have a soft spot for most of the classes, but especially the ‘waterlily’ types such as D. ‘Firepot’ and D. ‘Amercian Dawn’. The flowers tend to be modestly sized and easy to associate with other perennials and exotics.

An unnamed dahlia with flowers in the 'decorative' class
An unknown dahlia variety with flowers in the ‘waterlily’ class
The lilac flowers of D. 'Blue Boy' combine well with pinks, blues and silvers
The lilac flowers of D. ‘Blue Boy’ combine well with pinks, blues and silvers

After my recent visit to Great Dixter I am keen to experiment with other dahlia flower shapes, including cactus, semi-cactus (with less tightly rolled petals than a true cactus) and pompons. Fergus Garrett and his team have no qualms about using dahlias throughout the garden, emerging from amongst foaming perennials, filling gaps where spring flowering plants have faded, and in pots. It’s a joy to see them employed with abandon in such a current and trend-setting garden.

A semi-cactus dahlia variety in the Sunk Garden at Great Dixter
A semi-cactus dahlia variety in the Sunk Garden at Great Dixter
Not quite a pompon, this vermillion dahlia was the perfect choice for Great Dixter's Exotic Garden
Not quite a pompon, this vermillion dahlia was the perfect choice for Great Dixter’s Exotic Garden

We are fortunate here in East Kent to have The Secret Gardens at The Salutation, where Head Gardener Steve Edney is constantly indulging his passion for dahlias with inventive new plantings. Following this winter’s devastating floods, Steve has filled a lot of the gaps where other plants perished with interesting groupings of dahlias. On the whole this has been successful, although one wonders what Lutyens and Jekyll would have made of it. The garden’s trial bed is a great place to assess new varieties and appreciate the vast spectrum of colour, stature and form available.

Room for one more? D. 'Sam Hopkins' could be contender for our garden next year
Room for one more? D. ‘Sam Hopkins’ could be contender for our garden next year

When we visit Cornwall in September I am excited to visit the National Dahlia Collection at Varfell Farm near Penzance. The collection consists of over 1600 named species and cultivars and should be in its prime after an unhelpfully dry start to the growing season. My aim will be to pick out new varieties for my garden next year, ensuring we capture, once again, the sheer drama that dahlias can deliver.

At The Salutation, a trial  bed demonstrates the dahlia's huge range of colour and flower shape
At The Salutation, a trial bed demonstrates the dahlia’s huge range of colour and flower shape