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The Plot Thickens

Hi, I’m Karen Meadows. Thank you for visiting The Plot Thickens.

I’m lucky enough to be the tenant of one of fifty large allotment gardens in the middle of the small and beautiful stone town of Stamford in England’s East Midlands. The gardens were first created by Brownlow Cecil, 4th Marquess of Exeter in the mid 1800s and their layout has remained virtually unchanged. Between the plots we have some 200 old apple trees, many of them rare varieties, and in 2017 Natural England awarded the gardens heritage orchard status.

Over the centuries at least 500 people have worked these plots. Follow our quest to discover who they were, what they grew, and what shenanigans they got up to. Be prepared for numerous diversions and musings along the way about gardening life here in our quiet (and occasionally not so quiet) little corner of Stamford.

If you haven’t discovered our website yet, do head over to Waterfurlong Orchard Gardens, where you will find a wealth of information about our gardens and gardeners, past and present.

And now for the small print...

The Plot Thickens is a non-commercial blog. All recommendations are based on personal preference and my own or our other gardeners’ own experience. Payments or free goods are not accepted in return for reviews of products and services. If an exception is made this will be clearly stated.

All words and images, unless otherwise credited, are my own. If you would like to copy text or images, I’d kindly ask that The Plot Thickens gets a positive mention and a link back to this blog.

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The Dahlia


Since they arrived on our shores 200 years ago, dahlias have been in and out of fashion more than almost any other plant. At the moment, they’re one of the chicest of cut flowers and many of our Waterfurlong gardeners grow them - in my case in a bed in the vegetable plot, dotted with upturned, straw-filled flower-pots on canes to lure the beastly earwigs who feast on leaves and petals.

Dahlias are native to the high plains of Mexico and Guatemala and were cultivated for centuries by the Aztecs, who planted them as a crop, used them to treat epilepsy, wove cloaks and blankets from the fibrous parts and transported water in the twenty foot, hollow stems of the tree varieties.

In 1570, King Phillip II of Spain sent physician Francisco Hernandez to Mexico to explore the country’s natural resources. Hernandez reported back on the dahlia:

'This plant, which the Quauhnahuascenses call ACOCOTLI (water cane) and the Tepozthlanenses call CHICHIPATLI, is soft-tissued, its leaves similar to the leaves of Mountain Nard, but cut, some being fine cut, bearing at the ends of the stalks, which are nine inch, slender and rounded, stellate flowers, pale to reddening, with double roots of the size of acorns, ending in ever so many fibers, on the outside black, within white. This seems to belong to the order Ligusticum. It is found in the mountains of the Quauhnahuacenses. In taste the root is smelly, bitter, sharp; it is hot and dry in the third degree, one ounce eaten relieves stomach ache, helps windiness of the stomach, provokes urine, brings out sweat, drives out chill, strengthens a weak stomach against chill, resists the cholic, opens obstructions, reduces tumors.'

The first dahlia drawings were made by Hernandez’s fellow explorer Francisco Dominguez and published in 1651.

However, it wasn’t until 1787 that dahlia plants were brought back to Europe, and not for the flower but for the fleshy tuber’s potential as a vegetable. Judged ‘edible, but not agreeable’, the tubers turned out to have a strange taste, somewhere between a potato and a radish and never caught on with the Spanish public. But Antonio Jose Cavarilles at the Royal Gardens in Madrid thought the six foot high plant with its ‘brilliant, barbaric flowers’ might hold some promise as an exotic annual. He was right. He named the genus ‘dahlia' in honour of the Swedish botanist, Andreas Dahl, and managed to grow three new forms –