Plants In Detail – Dahlia ‘Akita’

One aspect of gardening in a small space that I enjoy most is that no detail goes unnoticed. Whilst this counts equally for annoying flaws and moments of near-perfection, there is as much joy for me in the emergence of a new leaf or the opening of a single flower bud as there is in the spectacle of a long vista or a meadow in full bloom. A small garden offers one the reassurance of knowing precisely what is going on, even if it’s not necessarily what one hoped (and it generally isn’t!).

Returning to the opening of a single flower bud, waiting for Dahlia ‘Akita’ to bloom has been like the proverbial ‘watched pot’. I planted the tubers a little late, having purchased them when the National Dahlia Collection were clearing their decks in early April. I planted them all in one pot as they were not particularly large. I have been waiting patiently ever since. Six months later the first bud is now open, revealing a flower of unique and intriguing beauty.

What first attracted me to Dahlia ‘Akita’ was its extraordinary, chrysanthemum-like flowers. I had never seen a dahlia with such unusual blooms and every image on the Internet looked slightly different, so naturally I felt compelled to see it for myself at The Watch House. I generally steer clear of dinner-plate hybrids since their flowers seem so vast and incongruous in a garden setting. However, ‘Akita’ struck me as exotic enough to work in my Rousseau-inspired Jungle Garden, where rules are made to be broken.

Two features of Akita’s flower are particularly striking. First of all the dramatic colouration, which sees cinnabar-red petals tipped and backed with cream, blending through to yolk-yellow at the centre. This fiery combination of red, yellow and cream lends each flower a distinctly oriental appearance, further accentuated by a slight cupping of each petal. At different times of the day the bloom takes on a remarkably different appearance. In the yellow light of morning, as above, it is all ablaze, some of the redness fusing into magenta and plum. In the cooler light of evening the flame highlights are gone, leaving the red and cream to form a stronger contrast. None of these photographs, taken with my iPhone X, have been altered, so as to illustrate the striking differences I’ve observed.

Subtle cupping or incurving of the front petals reveals more of the cream reverse when viewing the flower from front and side. This in turn illuminates each petal as if it were a hot flame reaching into cooler air. Tightly furled, they create a pronounced, pale centre, full of anticipation. As more and more petals unfurl, those towards the back of the flower start to roll or ‘recurve’, producing a bloom that looks less like a dahlia and more like a chrysanthemum. Flowers are carried at roughly eye level, in my garden at least, inviting deliciously close scrutiny.

Over the last few days the first bud has transformed from a tight, acid-yellow fist into a blazing supernova of a bloom. It’s so arresting that I can’t help looking at it every time I go outside. It does not matter that there are not tens of them, because that one single bloom tells me everything I need to know. Two further buds promise to swell the ranks and continue the display well into September. There will be more if the snails don’t outwit me. Even if they do, I already feel I have had my money’s worth.

Growing Dahlia ‘Akita’ has taught me three things, first that taller dahlias might not be such a bad idea in my garden, where they need to compete with towering gingers and soaring cannas; second that patience is a virtue; and third that great clumps and swathes of planting are not fundamental in creating a garden of genuine beauty and interest. A single, fleeting bloom can hold the eye and excite the mind as readily as any Brownian landscape. TFG.