For me, a highlight of early autumn is the appearance of dahlias, which come into their own in September and bloom spectacularly until the first frosts of October.
The flower shop next to my local tube station is currently overflowing with them, and it’s a weekly delight of mine to select a bunch. I ponder over type (spiky petals or honeycomb-like pompons?) and colour (soft lilac or tangerine orange?), delighting in the incredible variety.
Although dahlias fell out of favour for many years after reaching their pinnacle of fame in the Victorian era, over the past two decades these fascinating flowers have made their way back into the limelight.
It’s not a surprise that dahlias are used in photography styling with increasing frequency on instagram, where they’ve joined the elite rank of popularity previously dominated by peonies and ranunculus. The diversity in colour and shape make dahlias a versatile choice for florists and stylists; I love the creamy, blousy beauty of Café au Lait dahlias, just as much as I admire the dramatic Black Narcissus variety, with their pointed, blood-red petals.
History of Dahlias
Dahlias are indigenous to Mexico and are the country’s national flower. They were first brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the early 1800s. After over 200 years of selected breeding, hybridising and culture, dahlias are now one of the flowers with the largest variety of form, colour and size and are grown and appreciated all over the world. Apparently, hybridisers today are seeking dahlias with scent, ones that are frost-hardy, and a true blue dahlia.
The Mexican heritage of these flowers has been increasingly celebrated in recent years, as homage is paid by the Art and Fashion worlds to the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, whose work has been showcased in several major exhibitions around the world (including this one currently exhibiting at the V&A). Kahlo loved flowers and bright colours, and she would regularly gather bouquets of dahlias, marigolds, lilies, violets and irises from her garden, sometimes including dahlias in her paintings as well. I love this photograph of Kahlo with dahlias in her hair.
Where to See Dahlias in the UK
Although I am not in the least green fingered, I do love visiting spectacular gardens, and I have started putting together a list of some of the best gardens in the UK to see dahlias:
The National Dahlia Collection, Cornwall. I visited this dahlia farm last autumn, and it was so special to spend an hour or so strolling amongst the rows of all different types of dahlias, admiring St Michael’s Mount in the horizon.
Great Dixter, East Sussex. This famous garden has been on my list to visit for ages. I’m determined to get here one day!
Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden, East Sussex. I’ve heard many wonderful things about this garden, which isn’t generally open to the public, but I hope to take advantage of the September Open Days one year.
Rousham Gardens, Oxfordshire. The dahlia borders at this unspoilt garden are meant to be stunning.
Hever Castle, Kent. A visit early September is the perfect time to admire the gorgeous dahlia border, as well as late-blooming roses.
So far, I’ve only managed to get to the National Dahlia Collection in Cornwall, but I’m looking forward to exploring more as I work my way through this list.
If you fancy reading more about dahlias, or simply gazing at beautiful photos of many different varieties, then I recommend Naomi Slade’s book Dahlias: Beautiful Varieties for Home and Garden.
Georgianna Lane (whom I interviewed on the blog in this post) has taken many exquisite photographs to illustrate the book, and it’s a lovely read for any flower-lover, as well as giving helpful advice for growing and caring for dahlias.
I’m going to be back to the Penzance area again in early October, and I would love to make it back to the National Dahlia Collection if possible. Until then, I’ll keep enjoying picking up bunches from my local flower shop!
Don’t forget to check out my latest Tea & Tattle Podcast episode here.