Dahlias are considered one of the most spectacular garden flowers. There is a great variety of form in Dahlias, from the showy dinner-plate size to the bright, little single ones. There are 30 species and 20,000 cultivars of Dahlias.
Originating from regions in Mexico and South and Central America, Dahlias were revered by native tribe’s people, such as the Aztecs, for decoration, food and medicine. New world collection trips brought dahlias to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Initially, they were entertained as food plants, but this did not succeed, and by the early 19th century ornamental varieties began to appear. In the late 19th century some tubers were shipped from Mexico to the Netherlands and only one survived; that of the colorful red-flowered Dahlia juarezii. This plant was bred and selected with other previously collected Dahlia species, which resulted in the dazzling array of different sizes and floral forms and colors. In fact, these are parents to almost all Dahlia cultivars on the market today. Most dahlias are bushy plants, of varying sizes, and have deeply lobed leaves in shades of green and sometimes burgundy and dark purple. They are carefully organized into groups defined by floral size and floral form.
Tigridia pavonia is an outdoor flowering bulb, with sword like narrow leaves and very showy 3 to 6 inch diameter flowers. A central cup is three-segmented, and three larger segments form a triangular shape. The inner cup is usually speckled, the outside segments are in a vivid solid color such as pink, red or yellow. Each individual flower lasts a mere day, but others subsequently bloom, extending the season to several weeks over summer. Many species are easy to grow in pots, but survive best if protected from rain in the winter. Flavors, according to William Woys Weaver, range from spicy apple to carrot, though some are “quite bland.” He recommends peeling, dicing and parboiling them for five minutes with diced carrots as the basis for a salad in a homemade mayonnaise base.
In some cases, such as that of the tree dahlia (Dahlia imperialis), these plants could reach up to 20 feet in height. That wild, treelike species was called Acocotli by the Aztecs, meaning “water cane.” They valued the plant especially as a source of water for traveling hunters. Even to this day, dahlias will store large reserves of water in their stems — one reason they succumb so quickly to hard frosts.
The introduction of brilliant red D. juarezii in 1872, sent to Holland from Mexico, led to another breeding frenzy, and all the dahlia hybrids that we know today descended from the crosses made with this variety in the 1870s. In spite of that, only about five original hybrids survive from the 1800s: ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’ (1893), ‘Nellie Broomhead’ (1897), ‘Tommy Keith’ (1892), ‘Union Jack’ (1882), and ‘White Aster’ (1879). All the other thousands of dahlias shown in garden books of the period are now extinct.
Seeds for dahlias were sent to Spain in 1789 for the three basic species then known: D. atropurpurea, D. pinnata and the aforementioned D. imperialis. The early breeders of dahlias in Europe were primarily interested in developing the plant as a food source (especially the tubers), but those experiments never met with much success. When double forms of the flower began to emerge in the early 1800s, interest shifted entirely to the flower and breeding what is known today as the pompon (ball- or globe-shaped) dahlia.
3 large carrots, diced, preferably a mix of yellow and orange
1 pound dahlia tubers, pared and diced
1/2 pound fresh green string beans, cut into diamonds
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
3 tbsp vinegar (tarragon, chervil or dill vinegar recommended)
Mayonnaise to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 hard boiled egg, quartered
Mixed herbs (dill, parsley, chives), chopped
Steam the carrots, Dahlia tubers and beans for 5 minutes or until still slightly “al dente.” Put the vegetables in a large mixing bowl and add the oil and vinegar while still hot. Let the vegetables cool, and then add mayonnaise to taste so it coats all the vegetables evenly. Transfer the vegetable mixture to a serving bowl and garnish with the egg and chopped herbs. Serve slightly chilled or at room temperature. Serves 4 to 6.