It’s a tuberous rooted perennial native to Mexico and known for its showy flower heads, providing late-summer colour through to the end of October and the first frosts. It could only be a dahlia, the fashionable bloom currently at its dramatic best.
“Dahlias used to be seen as old-fashioned, but in the last 10 years they’ve had a renaissance, in part thanks to their social-media appeal,” says Thomas Broom-Hughes, director of horticulture at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond.
Broom-Hughes holds the likes of flower farmer Erin Benzakein of Floret Flowers in the US partly responsible for their renewed popularity. Benzakein has 1m followers on Instagram (@floretflower), and is the author of Discovering Dahlias: A Guide to Growing and Arranging Magnificent Blooms. Here in the UK, Broom-Hughes points to floriculture tastemakers Charlie McCormick (@mccormickcharlie) and Willow Crossley (@willowcrossleycreates).
“I used to loathe dahlias with a passion. When I got married, I banned them. Now I’m horrified, because these days I think they’re just exquisite,” says Crossley, fashion’s favourite floral stylist and the author of Flourish: Stunning Arrangements with Flowers and Foliage for Every Season.
At Petersham Nurseries, the dahlia is a signature flower. The plant nursery, garden shop and restaurant, founded by the Boglione family, is a destination for rustic style, famed for its emphasis on provenance and seasonality – a philosophy applied to everything from food and floristry to tableware and antique garden furniture.
“I adore dahlias,” says Gael Boglione, who has been imbuing the floral displays at Petersham with her exquisitely bohemian taste ever since she and her husband Francesco bought the nursery and the adjoining 17th-century house in 1996. “I used to think they were corny, but now I love them, in all their many shapes, colours and sizes. From varieties in the palest pink that you only seem to find in nature to the darkest reds, they bring me so much joy.”
Among the dahlias grown by Broom-Hughes at Petersham, a favourite is ‘Babylon Red’, an eye-catching dinnerplate dahlia with fiery, ruby-red blossoms. Additional dahlias sourced from Burnt Fen Flowers (a biodynamic farm in Norfolk) are sold as cut flowers from Thursday to Sunday. “I’d encourage anyone to buy only seasonal British dahlias grown in this country, not flown from abroad,” says Broom-Hughes.
How to create a picture-perfect tablescape with dahlias
For the decorative table pictured above, in which dahlias are the star of the show, Thomas Broom-Hughes has opted to pair dark, ruby-red ‘Manoa’ with light orange, apricot-coloured ‘Sylvia’, a pompom variety with a long vase life and intricate, tightly rolled petals – mingled with delicate, daisy-like heleniums. Here’s how he did it:
- As September closes, I incorporate autumnal hues into my table settings. Heleniums complement the structure of dahlias in a way that I find whimsical. In floristry, there are “focal” and “recessive” flowers. In this arrangement, the dahlias are the focal flowers; the heleniums are recessive. ‘Manoa’ has a voluminous, water lily-like shape, but it’s not so big as to steal the thunder in a small or medium-scale table arrangement.
- Dress your table carefully. I’ve chosen a purple linen here by Bertozzi, who block-print linen by hand – specifically commissioned for Petersham’s shop.
- Cut the stems in a mixture of heights and arrange them in differently sized glass vessels. It allows each stem space to breathe, so you can admire each individual bloom.
- Rather than aiming for formality, go for a laid-back, loosely styled, mix-and-match garden-supper look. Tablescaping is a creative outlet, so have fun with it. Include buds as well as blooms for a more natural look. If I’m having a party and I have lots of big dinnerplate dahlias, I like to float them in a large Victorian bowl, and I’ve been known to thread pompom dahlias through the collars of my two Labradors.
- Add seasonal foliage and fruit, such as pears and apples. Here, I’ve also draped the table with amaranthus, which gives the scene a sense of abundance.
- There’s no rule to say you can’t also use house plants in pots to complete your table display. I’ve placed Crossandra Firecracker ‘Fortuna’ in pots on this table, which has bright orange flowers in keeping with my colour scheme.
- Dahlia petals are edible, so use them to dress and decorate dishes – extending the theme to the food you serve.
How to grow dahlias
Follow Thomas Broom-Hughes’s tips for growing a dazzling display of dahlias at home:
- Dahlias add drama, and make gardens of all sizes look glorious. You can buy dahlias as plants now, but dahlia tubers should be gently dug up and stored in winter to avoid frosts. Tubers tend to go on sale from January.
- Plant them out into the ground once the first frosts have passed in late April or early May, or pot them up in a greenhouse in March for earlier flowers. Dahlias need at least six hours of full sun a day. They won’t grow in shade and they don’t like to be overwatered. The soil needs to be fertile and moist, but well drained.
- I use peat-free compost and grow dahlias organically, without pesticides, so as not to affect the bee and insect population. Feed them with a high potash fertiliser or a seaweed feed.
- Many dahlias do well in containers. The Mystic series of single-flowered dahlias are compact and perfect for smaller pots, so long as they’ve got enough drainage and don’t become waterlogged.
- Pollen-rich single flowered dahlias, which have a more prominent “landing pad” for bees and butterflies, are particularly good for attracting wildlife to your garden, since the pollen is more exposed and readily accessible. Plant them alongside the more blousy, decorative varieties – this also works well from an aesthetic point of view. A favourite single-flowered dahlia of mine is the scarlet-coloured ‘Bishop of Llandaff’. There’s a series of Bishop single flowered dahlias in an array of colours, from the bright yellow ‘Bishop of York’ to ‘Bishop of Dover’, which has white petals with a pale lilac stripe.
- Similarly to sweet peas, the more you deadhead your dahlias and the lower down you cut the stems, the more they will flower.
Dahlia displays to visit
RHS Wisley, Surrey
On Friday September 30, Discovering Dahlias at RHS Wisley will feature 100 different cultivars in an enormous range of colours, shapes and sizes in the Trials Garden and the Mixed Borders. Expert speakers will offer tips for growing and arranging. The show is included in the garden entry price. Adult non-members £15.95; rhs.org.uk.
Dahlia Beach, Oxfordshire
Former TV director Andrea McDowell is the founder of the UK’s first pick-your-own dahlia farm at Millets Farm, which is open to the public seven days a week, from 10am-5pm until October 31. As well as more than 4,000 beautiful dahlia plants, there’s a farm shop, café and crazy golf. General admission is £5, PYO £2 per stem; dahliabeach.co.uk.
Pashley Manor Gardens, East Sussex
There are more than 70 dahlia varieties at Pashley, including pinks in the Rose Garden, sunny yellows in the Golden Beds, whites in the Elizabethan Garden, and purples in the Pool Garden. Reds and oranges, interspersed with darker, burgundy dahlias, are complemented by canna lilies in the herbaceous borders. The gardens are open on selected days until September 30. Adult entry is £13; pashleymanorgardens.com.
Aylett Nurseries, Hertfordshire
The Celebration Garden at Aylett Nurseries is best enjoyed when the dahlias are in season. After you’ve admired the 60 varieties on show, the rest of this family-friendly garden is worth a wander. Little ones can go bug-hunting in the “Bug Hotel”, or explore the spiral maze and wildlife meadow; aylettnurseries.co.uk.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Birmingham
In September and October, the Loudon Terrace at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens is ablaze with dahlias, including ‘Aurora’s Kiss’, ‘Mexican Star’, ‘Weston Spanish Dancer’ and Dahlia imperialis. “One of my favourites is Dahlia ‘Bryn Terfel’, named after the Welsh opera singer, which has fantastically big flowers,” says head gardener Wayne Williams. Adult entry £7.50; birminghambotanicalgardens.org.uk.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall
Heritage cultivars are found throughout the gardens at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. ‘Admiral Rawlings’ is a vigorous decorative dahlia in a rich velvety purple, dating back to 1904, while ‘White Aster’ from 1879 provides small flower heads popular for cutting. Single flowered dahlias, such as ‘Roxy’ and ‘Bishop of York’ provide a rich nectar source for pollinators through to October. Adult entry £22.50; heligan.com.
Water Lane, Kent
There are 37 varieties of dahlia grown at the Water Lane walled garden, vinery and restaurant in Kent, including ‘Café au Lait’, ‘Sweet Nathalia’, ‘Hollyhill Spiderwoman’, ‘Con Amore’ and ‘Black Jack’, available to buy in freshly cut bunches from the shop; waterlane.net.
Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire
Biddulph is famed for its “dahlia walk”. The dahlias are planted in tiers between yew hedging. This year the team has planted more than ever, and there are around 1,500 to see. Head gardener Paul Walton’s favourite is ‘Edinburgh’, which has purple-red petals with white tips. Adult entry £11; nationaltrust.org.uk.