Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dahlias and Dahlia : The Medicinal and Symbolic Plant of the Aztecs of Mexico, Central America and Colombia : Imported to Europe only 200 Years Ago

In the garden world, dahlias are "in".

Colleen Laing has put Dahlias together with the rock stars:

"Dahlias are the rock stars of the garden world, loud, gaudy, unpretentious crowd pleasers."

yardz sees as Dahlia renaissance:

"After years in the wilderness, dahlias have become the must have style statement in contemporary gardens."

Dahlias first came to Europe from Mexico, Central America and Colombia only several hundred years ago. See the Dahlia Time Line. D. Sorensenii in Meet the Dahlias - A History at gives us a short basic dahlia history (referencing the Encyclopedia of Dahlias by Bill McClaren):

"Very little is known about the dahlia prior to the time of the Aztecs. It is said that the Aztecs used parts of the dahlia for food and medicines, but most of this information cannot be verified since much of the Aztec culture was destroyed following the Spanish Conquest.

In 1570 King Phillip II of Spain sent Francisco Hernandez to Mexico to study the natural resources of the country. He stayed for 7 years and described plants that resemble dahlia species under the names, Acocotli and Cocoxochitl. The first drawings were made of the dahlias by an associate who was traveling with Hernandez and were published in 1651. The next time dahlias appear in history is 1789 , the director of the Botanical Garden at Mexico City sent plant parts to Antonio Jose Cavarilles, on staff at the Royal Gardens of Madrid in Spain. From these he grew and flowered 3 new plant forms, Dahlia pinnata, D. rosea, and D. coccinea. He named the genus after Andreas Dahl, a Swedish botanist. Seed and plant parts from Cavanilles dahlias were sent throughout Europe beginning in the early 1800’s. It was during this time that the scarlet Dahlia coccinea was crossed with a mauve-flowered species, possibly D. pinnata, which ultimately resulted in the first modern dahlia hybrid (Lawrence 1929). The new hybrid was easy to grow and hybridize so they quickly became very popular in European and American gardens. Through the 1800’s and 1900’s thousands of new forms were developed, with 14,000 cultivars recognized by 1936 and in the past century, nearly 50,000 named varieties have been listed in various registers and classification lists. All of these dahlia forms were hybridized from at least two, and possibly all three of the original Dahlia species from Mexico. The genus Dahlia consists of 35 species all of which are found in the highlands of Mexico and Central America. Most species have very restricted ranges and are probably rare. Very few are available to the dahlia grower. This is just a brief history, and there is much more information regarding the development of the modern dahlia. Reference: Encyclopedia of Dahlias, by Bill McClaren."

The medicinal and nutritional properties of Dahlia spp., by Glenn Ross Whitley, as published in Volume 14, Issue 1, September 1985, pp. 75-82 of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, here in the Abstract at PubMed, provide an astounding new glimpse into the world of the dahlia :
"The common garden variety dahlia was once an important root crop and medicinal plant among the pre-Columbian Indians of central Mexico, Yucatan and Guatemala. Its roots were valued both for the nutritious inulin stored inside them and for the antibiotic compounds concentrated in the skin of the tubers. The dahlia flower was a solar symbol worn by Moctezuma and his nobles. In the modern world, dahlias cultivated as a crop might prove to be a worthy food supplement in subtropical areas."

The Mainau Dahlia Vulkan which appears numerously in the header of the Garden Pundit (the photograph at the top of this blog) has been crowned the Dahlia Queen in past years at Mainau and in Hamburg - as Dahlien-Königin-Hamburg in 1993 and as Mainau-Dahlien-Königin in 1975, 1980 and 1981. The floriculturalist (viz. horticulturalist) (Blumenzüchter) was Klaus Pfitzer in Germany in 1974.

We started growing this dahlia with only one package of several bulbs which we bought directly in Mainau at the shop in the year 2000 and the bulbs have multiplied since then to give the panoply of flowers you see in the photograph - not including the dozens of bulbs we have given to friends and neighbors.

The Mainau dahlia Vulkan is very robust and in our garden one very vigorous bulb has reached a height of nearly two meters, although a height of about 1 and 1/2 meters is normal.

We fertilize the bulbs upon planting with special "flower earth" (Blumenerde) and horn chippings (Hornspäne, somewhat comparable to but not the same as bone meal) and water liberally.

We cut the flowers regularly for bouquets in the house and as gifts for friends and neighbors and of course new ones continue to follow those cut. We have had as many as 100 individual flowers flowering at the same time. We plant our dahlias in the Spring and the dahlia plant flowers from mid-summer to late Autumn. In one warm year we still had flowers going into November. We do dig the dahlias out of the ground and store them in the cellar, shaking off the earth around them, but we do not wash the bulbs, so that they retain a protective coating during the winter. We also leave all the stems on the dahlias after cutting them down to about a foot length. In the coming year, after planting and often only after several months, when the stems rot, you can remove them. We have had dahlias which also shoot straight from the stems rather than the bulb itself.

More dahlia information and photographs can be found at these websites:

The United Kingdom National Dahlia Collection
American Dahlia Society
Royal Horticultural Society
The National Dahlia Society of New Zealand
Blogs about: Dahlias
Garden Detective
Gardener's Journal
My Dahlia Confessions
iVillage GardenWeb Dahlia Forum
Violet Posy
Info about care for dahlias
Dahlienfeuer (dahlia images)
Gallery of Dahlia Images
Dahlia species
The Garden Helper
Dahlia Days

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