With a history that’s intrinsically tied to Mexico, the dahlia is a striking emblem of its homeland’s desert beauty, while its detailed backstory also links it to Spain, France, Germany and Sweden, too. They thrive in sunny locations and are widely renowned for their striking appearance and their many vivid hues (aside from blue). So, while the sun is still shining we thought it fitting to celebrate the vibrancy of the dahlia for July’s FOTM.
A brief history...
Let’s start at the beginning. Despite being first documented by the Spanish in 1525 when they went by their Mexican name acoctili, dahlias disappeared off record until 1787 when they made their way over to Europe after a French explorer sent to retrieve samples of a particular insect famed for its natural red dye came across a garden of dahlias in Oaxaca. And despite being known then, their existence was kept secret for another ten years before being gifted to the public. Their first notable fan? None other than Marie Antoinette who famously fell in love with the stem (there’s a variety named after her now, too).
While indigenous people used both wild and cultivated dahlias as a source of food for centuries, the Aztecs believed them to be a cure for epilepsy and used the long hollow stems of certain types as water pipes. Many years later (across the pond) dahlias became the favourite flower of the court of Queen Victoria, and it’s during this time that the beauty of the stem inspired great symbolic meaning to express personal sentiments of commitment, dignity, elegance, a meaning that has survived and is still associated with dahlias today.
Battle of the names
So why the name ‘dahlia’? This is where the Swedes come in. The stem was named in honour of the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, though it was rooted in some controversy… Namely an insistence amongst German botanists that the plant be named georgina, after their own star botanist, Johann Gottlieb Georgi. Ze Germans stuck fast to this and continued to refer to the plant as a georgina well into the middle of the 19th century.
Pesky, petty European bickering aside, the Dahlia was named the national emblem of Mexico in 1963. Given the invasive impact of Europe upon the lands of central Mexico, there’s a certain satisfaction to be taken from the fact that the Dahlia is said to symbolise grace under pressure.
So many species
With relatives that include the sunflower, daisy and chrysanthemum, the dahlia is distinct in its own right: wavy petals that flare out in a manner akin to the mane of a lion, often featuring gradient colours for that tres cool dip-dye effect. From Ball dahlias, Pompon dahlias and Cactus dahlias, to Double Orchid dahlias, Peony-flowered dahlias and Star dahlias – there are in fact 42 species and about 20,000 cultivars of dahlia. This great variety results from dahlias being octoploids — that is, they have eight sets of homologous chromosomes, whereas most plants only have two.