Stake the Dahlias

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Posted by @Sharon on
I grew up loving wildflowers, their little blooms, their foliage, their purpose in life. They seemed to grow and bloom with absolutely no care or attention. I discovered quite early that none of that was true for my mother's prized dahlias. They had to be staked and tied and needed daily care. I wasn't very fond of a plant whose bloom was too heavy for the stalk it grew on.

My mother was an avid lover of plants that promised beautiful blooms, those that had no other purpose in life but to produce flowers of a size and color that would leave your mouth open in awe. The slope at the foot of the mountain, which was our backyard, was blanketed by her flower gardens.  She and my dad had terraced that area, using rocks taken from that same mountain to form walls that held the mountain in place.  Her gardens grew like giant colorful steps that took you ever upward toward the heavens.  With each different level the plants grew taller; that meant that the final row on the topmost step was planted with her gigantic dahlias, looking so much like a colorful backdrop across a stage.  I remember every single inch of that back row.  It was 40 or more feet long. I also remember every single inch of her dahlias, which mostly grew to 6 feet tall with blooms bigger around than I was. Dinner plate dahlias, Mom called them, and they surely were.

I didn't know very much about dahlias back then. I only knew that it was my job to stake them and to keep them tied to their stakes as they grew ever taller.  Otherwise they would droop and, in most instances, they would fall to the ground.  I was not quite twelve that summer and probably not much more than 4 feet tall, but Mom figured that if I stood on the slope behind the row of dahlias, I could easily drive the point of that 6' stake just behind the dahlia below me, and could continue to tie the stalk to the stake as it grew upward. What my mother didn't realize was that I was not a very good stake driver, the big hammer and I were not the best of friends, I wasn't very fond of dahlias, and the stakes were much taller than I was. And the truth was that I kept wondering why on earth there was a bloom so big that its own stalk wouldn't support it.  Surely that plant was nature's huge mistake. I even told my mother that something was terribly wrong with a flower that couldn't support itself.  Mom didn't pay a bit of attention to my whine.

Dahlias have an interesting history.  From old records and even older drawings, we can almost follow the paths they traveled from their origin.  They originated mostly in Mexico, but some also grew in Central America and Columbia. The tubers, or corms, were a food and medicinal crop for the Aztecs, but with the Spanish Conquest it seems that the food and medicinal usage fell by the wayside.  In the years following the Spanish Conquest, the dahlia began its cross country travels and though it was accepted as a plant of great beauty throughout Europe, it was never accepted as food or as medicine.

The dahlia was discovered in Mexico by exploring Spaniards, and in 1525 there appeared the first recorded description of them, although they had yet to be given a name.  From there they can be placed in Rome in about 1640.  Though discovered by the Spanish, they don't appear to have been growing in Spain until about 1789, but their descriptions are mentioned by the French in 1787.  Italy describes the dahlia in 1798 and by 1800 dahlias were recorded in botanical writings from England, Germany, Belgium and Austria. We are not sure when they came to the United States but they were for sale here as seedlings in 1840.  Mention of them in Scotland appeared in 1846.  It's interesting to note that the name "Dahlia" was first introduced to Europe in 1789, named for the botanical writer Anders Dahl, but when the dahlia came to Germany in 1805, the Germans changed the name to Georgina after the naturalist Johann Georgi.  The final adaptation of the name "Dahlia" was in 1810 when it appeared in a published article in all of Europe.  Even so, the Germans clung to the name "Georgina" for several decades. 

Dahlias are related to sunflowers, daisies, and zinnias.  They generally have one head per stem, some as small as 2 inches and some as large as a dinner plate.  My mother's dahlias rivaled even dinner plates in size. I swear they seemed as large as a round turkey platter.  They most often grew to their full 6 or 8 feet in height as well.  The thing about dahlias is that they don't have much of a sweet scent and don't attract pollinators, but the big bright colorful blooms do attract birds.

Along with using the corms as food, the Aztecs also used them to treat epilepsy, and the long hollow stem was used as a water pipe. The tubers, or corms, are still grown in some of their countries of origin for food.  If roasted, the corms provide an extract that tastes much like mocha. It's used to flavor beverages throughout Central America.

Much to my mother's dismay, I broke a few stakes and mangled a few dahlias that year.  She was a teacher and during the summer she took classes in a college town about 50 miles away from our home.  She left at daybreak and returned home just in time for dinner, leaving me to baby sit my  4-year-old brother, keep the house straightened, prepare dinner, and stake those dahlias.  And just as if my own memory were impaired, she left a daily note: Take care of your brother, Straighten the house, Meatloaf for dinner, Stake the dahlias.

It was the same thing every single day that summer.  The only change came with the dinner menu. I devised a plan that would include my brother: He would be the stake holder and would follow me as I drove those stakes into the ground, one stake for each dahlia, probably about 40 stakes in total.  The problem with that was his vivid imagination.  The stakes became airplanes and diggers of little holes until finally he decided they were swords and I relieved him of his job.  As I remember, it took many days before I finished driving those stakes behind each dahlia, and by the time I got to the end of the row, the dahlias had grown at least another 12 inches and had to be tied to the stake again. My little brother had no interest in learning to tie anything, so it was useless to waste my time trying to teach him. 

I survived that summer and so did my brother.  I can't say the same for all of Mom's dahlias. Seems that sometimes I'd drive that stake right through the tuber and the dahlia would wither and die.  Sometimes the stakes leaned to the left or to the right and the poor dahlia leaned with it.  And sometimes the stakes were so deep there was nothing left to tie the dahlia to as it grew well past the top of the stake.  No matter what I did, my mother never complained about her dahlias that year. Later she told me it was a job she thought I'd enjoy, knowing how much I liked plants.  I really appreciated that, I truly did, but over the years I've noticed that I rarely ever plant a dahlia, only the few that come to me as gifts, and only those that do not grow taller than a couple of feet.  In my mind their gigantic beauty was marred by all those stakes.

Once discovered, they traveled rather quickly, those dahlias that for a long time had no name.  And for a plant that had no medicinal or food value, you know it became popular simply for its beauty.  In all the countries dahlias visited, they remained, and you'll find evidence of them in many of today's gardens in various parts of the world.  In spite of my misgivings about a plant that can hardly hold its head up, I think they are truly beautiful flowers. 


Comments and Discussion
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
Tough plants...yes! by chelle Oct 2, 2015 9:21 PM 2
Ephemeral Dahlias by hazelnut Sep 28, 2015 7:13 PM 8
cool temps for Dahlias by Ursula May 24, 2014 9:24 AM 1
Great Story Tellin' by Bubbles May 22, 2014 1:41 PM 15
Dahlias: Deadheading. by SunnyBorders May 22, 2014 1:15 PM 1

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