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we like it wild: the dahlia dell

by Grace Bonney

Dahlias are like the lions of the flower world. With big heads (some as large as your own) and thick manes of petals, dahlias roar with color and personality. Not only do they come in nearly every color under the sun (except blue and black), they also come in an amazing range of sizes and types. Whether you like the honeycombed petals of ball dahlias, or prefer their wilder cactus-petaled cousins, there’s a dahlia for you. In short, these flowers pack a punch for surprisingly little green. Just a few dahlias can fill a vase, and they inspire oohs and ahhs like nobody’s business.

Late summer is a great time of year to go dahlia hunting, and we got an eyeful at Golden Gate Park’s Dahlia Dell this past weekend. Maintained by volunteers the Dahlia Dell is a laboratory of prizewinning dahlias of every possible variety. Tucked below the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park the teardrop-shaped test garden and adjacent hillside get excellent sun exposure – these Mexico and Central America natives like at least six hours a day. Planted from tubers, dahlias are annuals meaning they sprout, bloom and die all in one cycle, usually starting mid-summer. Volunteers at the Dahlia Dell work to maintain the bed and hillside until the coming winter gets the best of their blooms. In colder climates where the ground freezes the tubers can be dug up and stored for the next season’s planting.

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With dahlias it’s sometime hard to believe that you’re looking at flowers from the same family: the simple single flowering dahlias have just one circle of petals, anemones have elaborate layers of florets of different shapes and colors, cactus dahlias produces petals that look like spines, and ball dahlias are like tight little planets of color. We could go on. The American Dahlia Society has defined nineteen different classes of dahlias, and although we’d like to discuss each and every one of them here, we’ll stop ourselves.

Back at the studio with our own flower market dahlias in hand we undertook an experiment to determine the best way to keep our beauties looking best over the course of several days. Most dahlias max out after about 4-5 days but some varieties hold up better than others. We’ve heard many different care tricks in our travels for keeping dahlias fresh: fresh cold water or fresh hot water every day, Listerine in the water, commercial floral preservative, burn the bottoms of the stems, and even poking a tiny hole in the stem to let air bubbles escape. We were kind of unimpressed with our results- we were hoping for a really clear winner! The only method where we noticed a real difference was #3; the vase with floral preservative that we changed every other day. The flowers opened really nicely and the leaves held up slightly better than the others. Our experiment wasn’t completely scientific…(we had climate control issues when an unexpected heat wave hit midway through the testing)- but here are our tips for keeping your dahlias looking their best:


Buy locally. Dahlias are prized for their bold colors and unique shapes, not their longevity. You’ll get more life from your cuts if there is minimal time between the garden and the vase.

Make sure your container is really clean and if possible change the water in it daily. Floral preservative helps if you have it, but fresh and clean water is a must!

Take all the leaves off below the water line and rinse and recut the stems when you change the water. Dirty water equals bacteria equals death.

Keep them out of direct sunlight and really warm rooms (a general rule for most cut flowers).

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