Dahlias remain classic contemporary

KENNEWICK -- Dahlias are a wonderful addition to any garden, but few gardeners know that this flower's cultivation dates back to the days of the Aztec civilization.

The Aztec noble class had many gardens, including ones devoted to just ornamental plants and flowers.

Cultivated many centuries ago, dahlias are native to Mexico and Central America.

In 1570, King Phillip II of Spain sent his personal physician, Francisco Hernandez, to Mexico with a commission to report on the natural history of the lands. After spending seven years in Mexico, Hernandez returned to Spain and endeavored to get his records published. He died in 1578 before he accomplished this.

It was not until 1651 that his book was finally published. It was in this book that drawings of dahlias first appeared.

Later, in 1789, dahlias reappeared on the horticultural scene. That was when the director of the Botanical Garden in Mexico City sent some dahlia plant parts to Antonio Jose Cavarilles, who was with the Royal Gardens of Madrid in Spain. Cavarilles grew these parts into plants of three different species which he named Dahlia pinnata, Dahlia rosea and Dahlia coccinea. These three dahlias were shared with the rest of Europe in the 1800s.

Before long, the first modern dahlia hybrid -- a cross between two of these species -- yielded an easy-to-grow plant that rapidly found favor in both European and American gardens.

Because dahlias are easy to breed, thousands of cultivated varieties were developed in the next century, with 14,000 recognized named cultivars by 1936. Today there are more than 50,000 cultivars, all the result of the original crosses between two or three of those original dahlia species named by Cavarilles.

When I grow dahlias, I like to pick the annual bedding plant types. They're easy to grow. I can remember my grandfather growing dahlias with much larger flowers. He kept these from year to year by digging up the tubers in the fall, storing them over the winter, and then dividing and replanting them in the spring. The large flowered and prettiest dahlias are grown from tubers, underground stems that serve as carbohydrate storage organs for the plants.

Growing dahlias from tubers like my grandfather takes extra effort on the part of gardeners, but the extra work is worth it. The flowers range from white to almost every color of the rainbow, including yellow, orange, pink, dark pink, red, dark red, lavender, purple, bronze, flame, light blends, dark blends, variegated and bicolor. There's also a diversity of flower types, with 18 recognized shapes including ball, miniature ball, pompon, waterlily, peony, anemone, cactus, single and more.

You can see some lovely dahlias this summer in the Formal Garden in the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden in Kennewick. These are lovingly dug and stored in the fall, then divided and replanted in the spring by the Master Gardeners.

The Northwest is home to a number of commercial dahlia growers. One of the most well known is Swan Island Dahlias in Canby, Ore.

I once visited Swan Island Dahlias in late summer when the plants were in flower. Since they have more than 40 acres of dahlias, it was like being in an ocean of color. They have a dahlia festival every year where you can celebrate the dahlia, view the fields of gorgeous flowers and even buy cut dahlias.

You can reach Swan Island Dahlias at 800-410-6540 or

Other Northwest dahlia growers include:

-- Alpen Gardens in Gaston, Ore., at 503-662-3951 or;

-- Clack's Dahlia Patch in Myrtle Creek, Ore., at 541-863-4501 or html;

-- Connell's Dahlias in Tacoma at 253-531-0292 or;

-- or Dan's Dahlias in Oakville at 360-482-2406 or www.dans

If you want to learn the secrets of growing great dahlias, plan on attending Spring Garden Day sponsored by WSU Extension and the WSU Extension Master Gardeners on March 7.

One of the speakers will be Lou Ann Schielke, a local dahlia expert. She will reveal how easy it is to grow great looking dahlias.

This is just one of the gardening classes being offered at Spring Garden Day. I'll start the day off with a presentation of the newest emerging trends in gardening.

The presentation will be fun and interactive. Attendees will also have the opportunity to learn about Square Foot Vegetable Gardening, Creating a Backyard Habitat, Landscaping with Ornamental Grasses, Backyard Fruit Trees Pests, Xeric & Alpine Plants, Honeybees & Other Pollinators, Perennials -Growing Basics, Basic Rose Care, Composting with Worms, Perennials -Design Basics.

For more information about Spring Garden Day call 509-735-3551.

Or go to the WSU Extension Web site for a registration brochure at http://

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Extension Office in Benton County.