Dahlias provide their own dramatic form and color. Being native to the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala, they hibernate in moderately warm, dry winter air, then bloom in early fall after most flowers have faded. The dahlia was first written about by the Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez in 1570. In his writings, he told of the Aztecs’ use of the dahlia as a food source, a treatment of epilepsy, and a water pipe using its hollow stem. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the flower actually made its way to Spain. From there, it was distributed throughout Europe. Today’s dahlias have developed many forms, sizes, and colors that are delighting gardeners around the world.
In 2009, Flower visited Mana and Jack Joyner’s Cedar Creek Dahlia Farm to learn about varieties and get tips for growing dahlias in north-central Alabama. See some of the beautiful varieties they shared.
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This bucket of dahlia blooms packs in ‘Spartacus’ (red), ‘Santa’s Helper’ (candy cane-colored), ‘Brittney James’ (bright yellowy-orange), ‘Hissy Fitz’ (yellow with serrated edges), and ‘Highlighter’ (neon yellow).
The crimson-splattered ‘Bristol Fleck’ dahlia blossom evokes the pattern of vintage speckled enamelware.
Two show-stopping ‘Brittnay Rae Joyner’ dahlias (another 2004 seedling of ADS’ Hy Clown). As Mana Joyner explains, you get many varieties of flowers from one seedpod of a particular flower.
‘Brittney James’, a 2004 seedling of ADS’ Hy Clown, is named for the daughter of friends of the Joyners and was Mana and Jack’s first hybridized dahlia that they named.
A seedling of the American Dahlia Society’s ‘Jessica Connor.’
A bee feasts on this unnamed dahlia seedling with beautiful feathery petals.
A butterfly waits while a bumble bee enjoys blossoms of ‘Camano Shadows,’ a variety of the American Dahlia Society (ADS), with pink petals that look like they’ve been dipped in paint.
When the dahlias reach about 10 inches tall, the Joyners pinch out the top tip of the plants to make them branch and "bush out." Here, Mana Joyner shows how to disbud a dahlia plant—removing some buds to make larger flowers bloom later.
As dahlia plants get taller, they need support. Each plant must be staked or grown through wire as seen here in the Joyner's beds. The Joyners prefer wire support because heavy Alabama rains mean that every blossom can need its own stake and tie.
Mana and Jack Joyner at Cedar Creek Dahlia Farm. “We cut together and we plant together,” Mana says of her and Jack’s working philosophy. For the Joyners, everyday on the farm brings that adage to life.
GROWING DAHLIAS – QUICK FACTS
CLIMATE: The flower is hardy only in zone 8.
COLORS: Dahlias come in every color except blue.
PLANTING: Warm, well-drained soil is best. Wait a couple of weeks after the last frost to plant. Plant the tuber several inches deep with the eye facing up. Unless your climate is extremely warm, do not water until the tubers have sprouted.
PESTS: Get out your favorite snail bait, because they love the new, young growth emerging from the tubers (the part of the plant that is underground and stores energy). Two of my personal organic favorites are ‘Sluggo’ and ‘Escar-Go.’
BLOOM: Each variety differs in size, shape, color, and bloom time. Smaller flowering varieties tend to have more blooms and bloom faster. Stakes will be necessary to support the heavier flowers.
STORING: Wait until the stem has turned black and hardened, which normally happens about two weeks after the first fall freeze. Store tubers in a cool (45–65°F), dry area. Many people store them in the basement in a box or grocery sack with some peat moss.
BUYING: Since dahlias take a lot of work to grow, they can be hard to find. But, if you want “a gorgeous, big flower,” Mana says, “you have to buy a dahlia.” Here are some helpful tips:
- Contact dahlia suppliers through The American Dahlia Society. Some of the members sell their flowers to interested buyers in their region.
- Visit local farmers’ markets to find a vendor in your area. Some farmers may know of flower growers nearby, though they may not have a booth or stand of their own.
- When ordering dahlias for a bouquet, make sure you specify that you want dahlias, not carnations. Florists may use the flower as a substitute if you don’t request otherwise.
By Troy Rhone and Callie Aldridge | Photography by Jason Wallis