Mother Earth Gardener

Rediscovering Heirloom Dahlias

Dahlias have something over most other flowers: They are happy bloomers, and they fill the garden with a riot of unusual colors not easily replicated because the shades and intensity change with the season, growing more and more intense as fall approaches.

I think it was the discovery of those rare old Victorian colors that first attracted me to heirloom dahlias. Frankly, today’s trendiest varieties are garish and unimaginative, a “look” so gracelessly cookie-cutter perfect; I said to myself surely I can do better than this! The problem was, in order to grow dahlias like the varieties appearing in old seed catalogs, I would have to breed them from scratch.

Most gardeners are not aware that the extraordinary dahlias of the past are mostly extinct. There are only a handful of varieties like ‘White Aster’ (1879) and ‘Union Jack’ (1882) dating from before 1900 and many of the famous ones from the golden age of dahlia breeding in the 1920s and 1930s are gone forever.

One of the largest collections of those old dahlias was located in Germany, and during World War II that collection was mostly destroyed. Collectors have managed to cobble together a fair representation of some of the classics like ‘Jersey’s Beauty’, the first of the large flowering types that appeared in 1923; just the same, many pieces of the story are still missing, and the only way to replace them is to go back to breeding look-alikes.

I have been doing this for about eight years now, first as a hobby just to see what I could accomplish. My first success was ‘Roughwood Jenny’ (2004), a cute little orange-yellow pixie dahlia that came out of an heirloom called appropriately enough ‘Little Beeswings’. Today this hobby has become a serious passion, and I hope in the near future to find a way to give my dahlias — I call them “my girls” — much broader exposure because as landscape accents, the Victorian types present a decorative style that is unique.

While it is true that most Victorian dahlia admirers were locked into a mindset that considered pompom dahlias the only perfect form of the flower, there were many other shapes which did not look like dahlias at all; rather they resembled large daisies, or anemones, or cosmos, water lilies, even sunflowers (to which dahlias are related). And those dahlias are an unexplored area in creative breeding. Some of my re-creations, like ‘Roughwood Janet’ (2005) and ‘Roughwood Lisa’ (2006), are tall, long-stemmed prolific bloomers that make eye-catching backdrops for other sorts of flowers down in front.

Of course, one needs inspiration, so paging through old dahlia catalogs and garden books is one way to locate pictures of the extinct flowers. Unfortunately we are not often provided with more than a description of the flower itself, so leaf type (and there are many), habit—the way the plant grows, such as compact or loose, and the coloring of the foliage more often than not are altogether lacking.

These points are quite important, for example with my ‘Roughwood Miriam’ (2006), because this deep orange pompom is especially striking due to the dark, black-green leaves. In short, the foliage frames the flower to better accent it, and if you look carefully at old types of dahlias, you will notice that there is a wide range of leaf types, from feathery to almost an oak-leaf form.

One must have an eye for these aesthetics, especially for subtle Victorian color tones, which are far richer and more complex than what we see in most dahlias today. This biodiversity calls to mind one of my dahlias that not only has violet tubers, but the leaf stems are also purple. It is striking even when there are no flowers!

Nineteenth-century Philadelphia seedsmen William Henry Maule and Henry H. Dreer were well-known locally for their extensive dahlia breeding and long lists of available varieties, many from Europe. Maule introduced a now extinct dahlia called ‘Nymphaea’ (it looked like a water lily, hence the classical name), which was considered unique because it also had an extraordinary perfume. Most dahlias have no scent, at least not to humans, which is why they were equated by Victorian poets with “heartless beauty” or even vanity: All show no fragrance.

Both Maule and Dreer maintained dahlia farms in New Jersey and Delaware, and supplied gardens throughout the East with a rich array of dahlias. I have been able to recreate Maule’s 1894 spectacular red ‘Fire King’ although I prefix all my dahlia creations with ‘Roughwood’, the Victorian name of the property where I live, since I do not want anyone to imagine that this “Fire King” is the genetic long-lost original. The flower is well named because it adds a splash of vibrant fire-engine red to the garden, and since it is low growing, it looks good as a border plant, which is what Maule had intended with the original.

The trick to recreating these old dahlias is in the seeds. Dahlia seed does not always grow true: first, because open-pollination of the flowers creates crossing with all the other dahlias in the garden. Secondly, even when one variety is isolated so that it does not cross, that variety has been perpetuated by cloning (replication of the tubers) so many ancestors and cousins will show up in the seeds.

This is how I “find” lost varieties, sort of like taking the idea of Jurassic Park and turning it into flowers. Out of Kaiser Wilhelm, an 1893 rare German dahlia, I managed to isolate several pompoms of similar size and shape. My own ‘Roughwood Emperor’, ‘Roughwood Empress’ and ‘Roughwood Sulphurea’ came out of seed produced by crossing Kaiser Wilhelm with himself. And then out of ‘Roughwood Empress’ which is an extraordinary glowing pink, I recently created ‘Roughwood Lydia’, a dahlia that may represent one of the richest salmon pinks around. The flower is so full that it resembles an old French rose.

So every year I do a little breeding, and then in the early spring I plant the seeds and wait with bated breath all summer until the seedlings bloom. Only then do I know for sure what I have, and of course there are a lot of “dogs” which are pulled up immediately because the flowers just don’t cut the grade. However, when I find a good one, the tuber is carefully packed away for winter storage, a name and number are entered into the computerized list for the dahlia collection, and I begin to grow the flower every year. Sometimes the dahlia does not have fixed traits, or something may change in a year or two, so it is important to grow the flowers for about five years in order to determine that the good characteristics I saw the first year will repeat themselves again and again.

One of my latest goals is to recreate some of the 1920s classics bred by New York judge Joseph T. Marean; most of his spectacular, award-winning dahlias are now lost. Yes, this is a slow process and one good reason dahlia breeders need to live a long time so that all these experiments can produce results.

Regardless, there is something very cheering about breeding dahlias. They seem like such happy children, and the bees and butterflies treat them like candy. A garden full of dahlias is indeed a garden full of moving color, and if the insect world is not enough, birds find plenty of food in dahlia gardens as well.

So the whole symphony of Nature seems to come together in one place, call it Zen of the soil, call it what you will, but old-time dahlias sing a song all of their own, and if you listen closely, you may even get into the rhythm of the melody.

Heirloom dahlias are available online from Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, PA.

  • Published on Sep 12, 2016
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