Every autumn the Puget Sound Dahlia Association plants a dahlia display garden at Volunteer Park in Seattle, along the edge of an open grassy field. My friend, Lori DeMarre, the photographer, first took me there on one of our monthly photo expeditions. Now I return every year (this time with my writing group) to wander among the fantastic blooms.
The dahlias glow in the autumn sun. Criss-crossing back and forth between the plants, trying to avoid the spider webs dripping with dew, I admire the sheer excess and exuberance of the species. Yellow dahlias, as big as salad plates, shining like miniature sunbursts. Tiny pompom dahlias of deep maroon. Petals of magenta and maroon curling inward in a perfect geometric pattern, like those designs I created as a child with a Spirograph. Dahlia stems, snapped in half, broken under the weight of the flowery burdens. The Mingus Toni (dahlias have fantastic names as well as fantastic colors) with magenta petals, streaked with splashes of red, exploding from an orange center.
My favorite last year was a big red dahlia called Mars. A magnificent red-orange, it blazed like the Fiery Planet itself against the dark shrubbery. With its eight single petals, it was probably similar in form to the original dahlia, which comes from Central America and Colombia and was known to the Aztecs as cocoxochitl, or at least that was the version of the Aztec name recorded by Francisco Hernandez, physician to Philip II, who compiled a thesaurus of medicinal plants from “New Spain.” In fact, I chose the Dahlia as the flower to feature for the month of August, because it’s not a North American or English flower originally, unlike many of the other flowers on flower-of-the-month lists.
According to a legend reported by Diana Wells in her book on flower names, the Aztec goddess, Serpent Woman, used to visit an eagle to gain knowledge of the sky gods. On one of her visits, she met a rabbit, holding a dahlia with eight red rays in its mouth. The gods told her to pierce the flower with a sharp spike of agave and hold this to her breast all night long. The next morning, she delivered a full-grown son, the War God, Utzilopochtli, who had gained strength for war and thirst for blood from the dahlia. However, I have not been able to find this legend in any online references for Aztec mythology.
The usual story told of the birth of Huitzilopochtli makes him the son of the Aztec earth-goddess, Coatlicue, the goddess of life and death, who was always depicted wearing a necklace of skulls and a skirt of serpents. She found a ball of feathers and tucked it into her skirt, thus becoming pregnant. This angered her other children and they plotted to kill her. But when they dragged her up on top of a mountain to sacrifice her, she gave birth to Huitzilopochtli, the war-god, often depicted as a beserker humming-bird, who slew his treacherous siblings in an orgy of blood.
The militaristic Aztec culture which ruled by fear downplayed Coatlicue’s connection with birth and instead emphasized death. Fray Diego Duran, one of the early Jesuit missionaries (but I always get nervous when Catholic missionaries describe the customs of a people they are trying to civilize as they are wont to exaggerate the barbarism) reported on the custom of enlisting a young woman to represent Coatlicue, who disappears into a lake, leaving behind a cradle containing a knife, a signal that the goddess wants more sacrifices. According to Wells, every eight years when the Aztecs sacrificed prisoners to the War God, removed their hearts and placed them on stones surrounded by dahlias and agave.
It would be interesting to know how the hummingbird became a symbol of carnage. I would assume it would represent appreciation of beauty or fertilization, not slaughter. Perhaps it represents a shift in values, just as the ancient Roman god, Mars, was a god of agriculture originally, rather than the god of war.
The dahlia of Central America, the dahlia pinnata (I love the name with its suggestion of a pinwheel) had a very simple form: eight single scarlet petals around a yellow disk. (The Spanish conquerors also found another dahlia, the tree dahlia, acocotli or dahlia imperialis, although I don’t think that’s the one they brought to Europe). Perhaps because of this simplicity, the flowers, were not at first valued by European gardeners. Instead scientists experimented with preparing the tuberous root like a potato but found it lacking in taste. However, the Aztecs had used the roots to treat epilepsy. And in Europe and America, until insulin was discovered, diabetics were often given a substance called Atlantic starch or diabetic sugar made from dahlia tubers. And the Chinese, after testing 400 plants, have chosen the dahlia to be one of 31 herbs used to treat HIV.
Jamaica Kincaid, writing about gardening for the New Yorker, has often commented on the way plants, seized during the conquest of the country, go through a colonization process. In the case of the cocoxochitl, it was renamed after a friend of Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, named Andreas Dahl. Thus the flower name dahlia is a Swedish name, meaning “from the valley,” as I discovered to my surprise when I looked for its meaning and ended up at a baby name site.
In the language of the flowers, depending on which source you use, the dahlia means gratitude, dignity, pomp, instability and misrepresentation. Geraldine Adamich Laufer provides these even more specific meanings:
single dahlia—good taste
variegated dahlia—I think of you constantly
white dahlia—gratitude to parents
yellow dahlia—”I am happy you love me”
The dahlia didn’t really become popular in Europe until people discovered how to hybridize the flower and produce the incredible variety of colors and shapes which exists today. They were probably at the peak of popularity in the 19th century, since the Victorians loved the flamboyance and variety of the flower which could be raised in hothouses and then placed in beds for spectacular displays of color. A prize of one thousand pounds was offered in 1826 for a blue dahlia, but no one has yet produced one.
Looking at any dahlia organization website is like going to a pedigreed dog show, where the emphasis is all on classification. Dahlias range in size from AA (Giant), over ten inches in diameter, to MS (Mignon Single), up to 2 inches in diameter. The array of shapes includes formal decorative, informal decorative, semi-cactus, straight-cactus, incurved-cactus, laciniated (a twisted, fringed effect), ball, pompom, stellar, waterlily, peony, anemone, collarette, single (like the original dahlia), orchid, and novelty. Dahlias display every color but blue and black, but they seem happiest with the warm, rich, velvety colors of autumn: flame and bronze and lavender and yellow. I have only one dahlia plant in my garden this year (the rest were devastated by blight last year), but it is a color I would describe as cinnamon pink.
Dahlias are pretty easy to grow. They like rich, well-drained soil and plenty of sun. They can be planted as seeds but then need at least a year of growth before they will flower. The most common way to plant dahlias is to plant the tubers, either purchased or acquired through dividing the roots of an existing plant. The tubers are planted in spring, about two weeks before the last frost, in trenches, about four inches deep, with the buds pointing up, then covered with about two inches of soil. They will need plenty of water and support (drive a post into the dirt beside the tuber) or else they will break under their own weight. As they grow, add more dirt to the trench until it is level with the ground. When the plant is about one foot high, pinch off the top to encourage lateral growth. The more you pick them, the more blooms they produce.
I love to bring my dahlias into the house where their vivid colors warm my days. The scientists at the University of Nebraska Extension (who also have plenty to say about dahlia diseases and pestering insects) advise cutting them in the early morning or late afternoon when the blossom are almost fully open. Remove the lower leaves and place the stems in 110 degree Fahrenheit water in a cool, dark location for 24 hours. The stems should be cut again every day, removing about 1/4 inch and placing them in fresh water, or use a floral preservative.
Dahlias, used to a sunnier climate, are sensitive to frost. After the plants have been destroyed by frost, dig up the tubers on a sunny day, shake off the dirt and store them in a dry, cool place. I must admit that I have never dug up my dahlias (but then the Northwest has relatively mild winters) and they keep producing blooms year after year. This poem written by Edith Matilda Thomas, and printed by Bobby Ward in his book on flower lore, captures both the beauty and the melancholy of this season when the dahlias bloom.
Apple-green west and an orange bar,
And the crystal eye of a lone, one star . . .
And, “Child, take the shears and cut what you will.
Frost to-night—so close and dead-still.”
Then I sally forth, half sad, half proud,
And I come to the velvet, imperial crowd,
The wine-red, the gold, the crimson, the pied—
The dahlias that reign by the garden-side.
The dahlias I might not touch till to-night!
A gleam of the shears in the fading light,
And I gathered them all,–the splendid throng,
And in one great sheaf I bore them along.
In my garden of Life with its all-late flowers
I heed a Voice in the shrinking hours:
“Frost to-night—so clear and dead-still. . .”
Half sad, half proud, my arms I fill.
American Dahlia Society, www.dahlia.org
Carbonell, Ann Maria, “From Llorona to Gritona: Coatlicue in Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros, Melus, Summer 1999, www.findarticles.com
Killingsworth, Brian, “Dahlia Basics,” www.dahlia.org/basic1.html
People’s Daily, “Chinese Find Cactus, Dahlia Useful for Curing Diseases,” June 9, 2003, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200306/09/eng20030609_117907.shtml
Sander, Reinhard, writing a review of Diane Simmons’s book on Jamaica Kincaid for www.thecaribbeanwriter.com/volume10/v10p194.html
Steinegger, Donald H., John E. Watkins and Frederick P. Baxendale, “Growing Dahlias,” a publication of the University of Nebraska Extension program, http://www.ianr.unl.edu/pubs/horticulture/g189.htm
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997
Picture of Coatlicue: Del Campo, Edgar Martin, http://members.aol.com/emdelcamp/mother.htm