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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.

CLICK HERE for the rest of the post (and 7 more pictures) after the jump!

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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  • Wow. What a pop of color dahlias bring to a garden.
    And, who wouldn’t love the pup posing in front of them.

    I may not be a gardener, but I’ll be looking into these beauties.

  • Dahlia’s are great flowers, and relatively easy to grow.

    It’s dahlia festival time here, and the fields are ablaze with color! Such fun to walk amongst so many blooms.

  • Dahlias are my absolute favorite! Until my early 20s they were unknown to me, with the exception of the book, “The Black Dahlia”. For my 22nd birthday a friend of mine surprised me with an incredible arrangement of Dahlias from her own garden. Her note to me said “The Lion of flowers for a beautiful Leo birthday girl” I’ve always associated these flowers with my July birthday…so I alway treat myself!

  • Just last weekend I visited a wonderful dahlia garden in Camden, Maine (www.endlesssummerflowerfarm.com). I was amazed at the varieties and diversity in size, color, shape, etc. Absolutely beautiful.

  • A must see if you are in SF at the right time – some dahlias are smaller than tennis ball while others are almost as big as a globe!

  • i love these flowers they are actually some of my favorites…that and tulips!!! They are just so fun and beautiful all alone in a vase… love you blog :)

  • This is just LOVELY! Dahlias have such a special place in my heart because I had the lushest, pretties bouquet of dahlias when I got married.

  • Perfect timing! I just picked up a single dahlia at my local farmer’s market in Cambridge, MA. The shape is similar to the left-hand one in the #3 vase, but in bright and deep purples. Now I can use your tips to keep it happy. Thanks!

  • I love dahlias too but I definitely noticed that they don’t last very long in a vase even when I change the water daily. Mums seem to last the longest. I can even usually get tiger lilies to stay fresh for almost two weeks if I change their water daily.

  • Thanks for posting this!

    I stop by the Dahlia Dell in Golden Gate Park every weekend — it’s stunning and deserves to be shared!

  • I love Dahlias. They are fabulous eye candy. I planted large ones in my garden this year and it is so thrilling to get the pop of color and size of flower….truly one of natures best flowers. A true joy and your photos are terrific. Makes me happy.

  • My father has been lovingly caring for his dahlia plants (the same ones) for over 30 years. He digs them up in fall, stores them in the basement and then replants them every spring.
    A true testament to the beauty of this flower, great post!

  • These are so beautiful! I love a good healthy flower garden, they make everything so bright and pretty outside. How could you not feel good when you get to look at those?!

  • If you are ever in Montgomery County Maryland the National Dahlia Society maintains a Dahlia test garden in Derwood MD with some spectacular blooms. It’s open to the public from sunrise to dark and is free!

  • The flowers are absolutely beautiful! I came across something on the chd page that had the UCSF gardens on it, and it reminded me of this!

  • Love!!! Dahlias are my favorite & also were my wedding flowers. I’ve since managed to grow some in Savannah. I didn’t think they would like a humidity, but they all seem to be doing fine! I love them SO much!!!!

  • YAY! I have volunteered in this garden, and had the great good fortune to be able to enjoy several years of the garden’s bounty. I tip my hat off to the dedicated group that tends this wondrous patch, year after year.

  • My excitement for dahlias has thankfully spread to the kids, and we visit the garden every year. I always wondered about the hot water rumor, so thanks for putting it to the test.
    Loved the line “Dirty water equals bacteria equals death.” So true!

  • actually dahlias are NOT annuals…. but tender perennials… like annuals most perennials die off over the winter.. unlike annuals, (which MAY bloom again the next year… but only from seed they may have set) dahlias WILL bloom again from their perennial roots (tubers in this case) IF the tubers are not killed off by cold… (hence the “tender” part of the perennial)…. there are actually some dahlias tha& bloom in the 1st year, that could be considered “annual”… but the huge dinnerplate dahlias pictured are definitely perennial!

  • I make room in my garden for orange and purple dahlias even though they don’t have a scent. jfox is correct. Dahlias over winter in Northern Virginia just fine provided they are planted about 6-7 inches deep. The tubers get bigger very year as does the dahlia show!

  • These shapes, these colours! Dahlias are most inspiring. I love to take pictures at our local Botanical Garden here in Basel (Switzerland). If you ever come to this area go there. They also have a beautiful collection of iris that blooms in May/July: http://www.bogabrueglingen.ch/

    In my area i spotted the first blooming dahlia by midth/ end of July and now they’re everywhere.

    The dahlias I pictured in the Botanical Garden inspired me for several designs. I printed them on belts and cuffs and chokers.: http://zafraniversum.blogspot.com/2009/07/psychodahlias.html

  • I love dahlias and found a beautiful hand painted pillow covered in dahlias! I have it in my sun-room, so bright and cheerful!

  • this is my favorite place in the city in late summer. favorite flower and it’s such a killer location. every year, there’s this little stake where a sad wee dahlia named ‘erik the red’ is supposed to be and it’s always this puny little shrivel of a plant. so cute.

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