Our Top 10 Dahlias of 2021

As the dahlia season draws to a close, it’s time to celebrate those that dazzled during this uniquely cool and wet year.

We ended the last growing season by lifting all of our tubers from our allotment – over seventy cultivars. This back-breaking task was left until the days immediately preceeding New Year, when all that remained were dry stems draped with blackened foliage. They lifted beautifully and stored well, packed in crates filled with straw and old potting compost. We didn’t lose a single tuber over winter, resulting in an overabundance of plants in spring. Many of our spares were given away to friends. On the day after Boxing Day we ordered thirty new dahlias as rooted cuttings from Halls of Heddon, and another twenty from Pheasant Acre plants, bringing the class of 2021 up to around one hundred and twenty cultivars. These newbies excelled, outshining many of the dahlias grown from last year’s tubers. Their juvenile vigour resulted in a profusion of blooms and much healthier plants overall. Now, in late October, it’s quite evident which varieties were grown from cuttings as they are still outshining their established siblings. We will learn from this experience and take cuttings from our old tubers in spring, rather than plant them out again.

It has been the oddest year of weather I can remember; especially odd coming off the back of the glorious spring and summer of 2020. Spring was excessively cold and the summer was cool and wet. Autumn has had its moments, but has not redeemed an otherwise poor year as far as warmth and sunshine hours are concerned. Has this impacted our dahlias? Yes and no. We delayed planting out until the very end of May. This really paid off and the plants grew away brilliantly. Other gardeners chanced their arm and paid the price – it rarely pays to jump the gun in my experience. Dahlias planted later will always catch up if treated well.

The main problem this year has been the preponderance of slugs and snails. Encouraged by ample rainfall they caused many gardeners a lot of heartache, catching them unawares after a year in which most molluscs stayed in their shells to avoid the warm, dry conditions. We had a few casualties, although none were fatal. Overall, our dahlias don’t seem to have been bothered by a lack of sun or warmth. Perhaps the rain has encouraged them to grow a little taller and bushier, and we have had fewer flowers fade prematurely. A cooler growing season appears to have done no harm at all. We have every hope of seeing Dahlia imperialis ‘Alba Plena’ (double white tree dahlia) and Dahlia tampaulipana flower in early November, weather permitting. These gigantic species are often cut off in their prime, but this year we might just get away with it.

As always, some cultivars shone whilst others were overshadowed. There’s no telling why some have a bad year whilst their neighbours flourish. One thing I have found is that a weak performance one year does not mean the same will happen the following year, and vice versa. So, if your dahlias have been munched by molluscs or wiped-out by wind, there’s a very good chance they’ll bounce back next year.

Meanwhile, Here are our ten favourites from 2021; five of my own, five of The Beau’s, although the majority of them are shared loves.

Five From The Frustrated Gardener:

Dahlia ‘Christopher Taylor’

Whilst listed in no particular order, this is my big discovery of 2021. Brownie points are scored for both the colour and form of the flower, as well as the quantity of blooms produced. Cherry-red flowers suffused with neon-pink appear in abundance over a long season. Pink on the reverse of the petals lends the flower a distinctive luminosity which I adore: ‘Ken’s Rarity’ and ‘Kilburn Glow’ share a similar glowing quality.

We both agree that the burgundy-red, extra-long stems are superb for cutting, but they can be too willowy for an exposed situation. Fortunately the stems tend to bend rather than break in a gale. I have picked armfuls for the house and they have lasted well – up to seven days which is good for a dahlia. In a garden situation I would partner ‘Christopher Taylor’ with shocking pinks and sultry purple foliage – grown in front of Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (smoke bush), this sumptuous dahlia would be quite the showstopper. Available from Halls of Heddon, Pheasant Acre Plants and Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants at the time of writing.

Dahlia ‘Magenta Star’ AGM

I’m not one to dictate, but this dahlia ought to be in everyone’s top ten. True to its name, ‘Magenta Star’ has hot pink flowers, but the exact shade of pink is something to behold. Newly opened, the dazzling flowers seem to be shot through with electric blue, or is it violet? Perhaps it’s the way the sheer, pleated petals are offset against bronze foliage and fuzzy-wuzzy gold stamens that makes one’s eyes pop? Even backlit on a hot summer’s day the flowers retain an incredible degree of saturation, never, ever fading. The best decision you can make is to grow ‘Magenta Star’ and experience the colour conflagration for yourself. It will not disappoint.

‘Magenta Star’ is scarce commercially and notorious for forming pathetically small tubers – not to worry, somehow they still produce stately plants even if they are puny to start with. Bees adore ‘Magenta Star’, so it’s a perfect choice for a pollinator-friendly patch. If there’s one drawback it’s that then stems are a little short for cutting. Mind, you, that’s never stopped me.

Young plants available from Pheasant Acre plants in spring.

Dahlia ‘Ken’s Rarity’

Who was Ken? Having grown this dahlia for the first time I was desperate to know. A little research revealed that Ken Farquhar hailed from Wollongong, New South Wales. He was breeding dahlias in the late 80’s and 90’s. One can only hope he was properly chuffed by first flowering of his fluorescent fancy. I can best liken the colour to that of pink and yellow highlighter pens, which could be gruesome, only it isn’t. The softness of the flower shape, a classic waterlily, presents tropical tones to best advantage as they bleed into one another. I can think of no other dahlia quite like it: a rarity indeed.

Team ‘Ken’s Rarity’ with acid-yellow ‘Glorie van Heemsteede’ and pink ‘Sandia Flirt’ to create a thrilling threesome. All available from Halls of Heddon.

Dahlia ‘Hadrian’s Midnight’

Introduced by Halls of Heddon in Northumberland, ‘Hadrian’s Midnight’ is billed as a ‘very free-flowering dark red single with flowers having a black centre when young. Stunning if we do say so ourselves!‘. That’s not an understatement. We have noticed that the pointed petals turn magenta-pink as the season progresses, which is a bonus. We have ‘Hadrian’s Midnight’ planted next to my all-time favourite dahlia, ‘American Dawn’ and D. ‘Myrtle’s Folly’. They work brilliantly as a trio; a riot of peach, papaya, raspberry and blackcurrant. Delicious. Fruity colours please me no end.

Naturally bees adore a visit to these pollen-rich blooms, especially bumble bees. They can occasionally be found slumbering in the centre, clinging on for dear life. Although single flowers don’t last as long as doubles in a vase, I do find them very pleasing to arrange with as they’re not so heavy and clumsy as many dahlia blooms.

Dahlia ‘Black Jack’

We’ve grown some cracking dahlias this year so choosing just five was a tough gig. It was a toss-up between ‘Hillcrest Royal’, ‘Black Jack’ and all the Josudis for my favourite cactus. ‘Black Jack’ just scraped through because of its vigour and pest resistance: despite growing next to the compost bin the slugs and snails gave it a wide berth. Even in rough weather our plant held its own, although it did require extra staking towards the end of the season.

There are lots of dark cactus and semi-cactus cultivars, but ‘Black Jack’ is superior to many and valuable for its dark, dusky foliage. I’ve found it has excellent keeping qualities if cut for the house. For me, there’s no better partner for a dark cactus dahlia than a strong orange waterlily, for example D. ‘Orange Pekoe’. Widely available.

Five From The Beau:

Having gone from 60-70 dahlias last year to well over 120 this year, I feel that we have truly surpassed our own expectations. We have enjoyed colourful bloom after colourful bloom over the past few months and we are still cropping them well into October. As much as we don’t really have the room for more varieties we are, of course, planning next year’s display and already pondering new additions.

I could have added a few more stand-out varieties here, but I hope that this shortlist of beautiful dahlias gets your juices flowing and, if nothing else, provides inspiration for you to go and find your blooms of 2022.

Dahlia ‘Johnnie Ellis’

This variety will always be my Number 1 purely for emotive reasons. I named this dahlia after my husband who passed away in May 2012. Emotions aside, ‘Johnnie Ellis’ has proved to be a very strong, floriferous, semi-cactus variety. Johnnie originated from a well known dahlia breeder called Ken Stock who died, leaving behind a number of unnamed varieties. Ken bequeathed his collection to the National Dahlia Collection (NDC) and they released the seedlings to be named in exchange for a charitable donation.

‘Johnnie Ellis’ was officially registered with the Royal Horticultural Society in October 2015. As I type he is currently throwing out around a dozen creamy-white blooms with slightly fimbriated petals. Johnnie is not currently available for purchase as the NDC has moved to a new location just outside Camborne, however, as and when he is once again available I highly recommend you introduce him to your garden.

Dahlia ‘Bryn Terfel’

HUGE! This is the first word that springs to my when I think of this dahlia variety. Classified as a giant decorative, he does not disappoint. What a whopper. ‘Bryn Terfel’ produces blooms that are large and flouncy, the petals have a charming ‘twist’ (there’s probably a horticultural word for it!) and the colour has a very pleasing ombré from cherry red in the middle to a peachy pink at the base.

Utterly irresistible, with strong stems to support the weighty flowers. He doesn’t have the longest length of stem, so Bryn isn’t one for the vase but he most definitely is one for the dahlia bed or exhibition bench. Absolutely lovely.

Dahlia ‘Rosamunde’

Unique, pretty and delicate, that is how I would describe this dahlia. ‘Rosamunde’, also sold as ‘Classic Rosamunde’, has semi-double blooms of rich lilac-pink, held aloft dark, bronzed stems that could almost be fashioned from chocolate. The flower itself is Japanese anemone-like in appearance, although classification for this particular dahlia is unclassified or ‘miscellaneous’ as far as I know.

‘Rosamunde’ grows to around 3 feet high with generous long stems which are perfect for cutting. I’d like more of this variety next year and, if she came in other colours, I’d want them all. Available to purchase as rooted cuttings from Halls of Heddon.

Dahlia ‘Edith Jones’

I first discovered this dahlia at Doddington Place Gardens here in Kent. I was immediately taken with her and informed TFG that we must have her in the collection. Edith Jones is a collarette variety and, in my opinion, one of the best, on a par with ‘Dilys Ayling’ and ‘Don Hill’. This is a classical looking variety that would not look out of place in the back of a cottage garden border. Even her name suggests that she stems from a time when cottage gardens were all the rage.

‘Edith Jones’ is tall and she flowers her beautiful pink socks off. The flowers themselves are a deep raspberry red and her ‘collar’ is a lighter pink which compliments her petals perfectly. Another variety that is very good for cutting. Available from Halls of Heddon.

Dahlia ‘Ornamental Rays’

There are two main reasons for my love of this dahlia; her unusual petals and her colour. As TFG has already said on the Our Dahlias page, this dahlia resembles a sea urchin and she really does. Whenever I look at her I am also reminded of those extravagant spider Chrysanthemums that used to be all the rage and are, thankfully, coming back into fashion. She is described as an incurved cactus with a rich peachy colour. She is one of the most unusual dahlias in our collection. As with ‘Rosamunde’, above, if ‘Ornamental Rays’ came in other colours, I would want them all.

The one thing I am not happy about is ‘Ornamental Rays” stems; they are quite thin and in strong winds can break very easily. However, the stems are generous in length, so she is a good variety for the vase. ‘Ornamental Rays’ was purchased from the NDC. Until they resume selling we do not know another supplier of this variety – if you do, please let us know!

We’d both love to hear which dahlia cultivars made the grade in your garden, or perhaps you grow some of the wonderful species? Let us know! We’ll be making our 2022 shortlist soon, so get your nominations in ASAP.

You can read more about our burgeoning collection on the Our Dahlias page. We add descriptions of more cultivars whenever time allows.

Happy Gardening One and All.

The Beau

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4 thoughts on “Our Top 10 Dahlias of 2021

  1. Thank you for this post which arrives « à point nommé » as I was thinking of replacing my dahlias with roses after a heartbreaking defeat against molluscs this year. My garden is very small and I can’t really waste space. A demanding new job means I won’t be able to chase slugs and snails as I used to – and this year it made little difference anyway. But your pictures are so, so gorgeous and enticing! I don’t know what to do…

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  2. ‘Christopher Taylor’ and ‘Ken’s Rarity’ look like . . . roses, or some other flower, at first glance. I suppose that dahlias can do that. ‘Magenta Star’ is too rich for my taste. I believe that it is a popular cultivar here. ‘Black Jack’ is also a bit too extreme (for me), although in a different way. It is so dark. I should remember these cultivars better. There was one here like that (‘Black Jack’), which likewise performed surprisingly well where others did not. I do not remember the name though; and ‘Black Jack’ does not sound familiar. The person who obtained them did not put much effort into selection, and just got what was available. I am not certain if ‘Black Jack’ is that common. Of these few, ‘Johnnie Ellis’ is still my favorite. I see that it is described as ‘creamy’ white though. This is how it looks in pictures, and how I thought it looked earlier, but had not been certain. White, particularly pure white, is my favorite color. For flowers that afford the option, I almost always prefer pure white to creamy white or other shades of white. (‘John F. Kennedy’ [hybrid tea] rose, which most rose experts make fun of, is STILL my favorite; while I am none too keen on ‘Frech Lace’ [floribunda] rose, which is much more popular.) However, ‘Johnnie Ellis’ is a dahlia that I could appreciate for its history and the bragging rights that are associated with it.

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  3. I would be delighted if Ken’s Rarity would turn up in my garden. Maybe one of these days I will be able to source it. I am always amazed at the variety of your collection. I also like to see pictures of The Beau showing how large some of them are. He gives great perspective and is easy on the eyes too.

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  4. Brown Sugar has been a winner for me in a very difficult season. I love these slightly murky colours.

    Apricot perfection has come through two winters in Oxford with no care except a two inch mulch of clippings. It’s four foot high, starts flowering earlier than any and is still going strong now. Its only failing is the weak stems which can cause the heads to hang or even snap ( though I didn’t notice that last year, may be the lack of sun and rain to give it a boost).

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