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 – dahlia pinnata, rosea and coccinea.

As other hybridisers got to work, the first double forms made their appearance in various shades of purple, crimson, yellow and white. The Empress Josephine was an early enthusiast who hand-planted new cultivars in her gardens at Malmaison, several of which were imported to England after the Napoleonic Wars. John Wedgwood, son of pottery-firm founder Josiah and co-founder of the Royal Horticultural Society, grew 200 varieties. Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth and designer of the Crystal Palace, devoted a dissertation to the dahlia and in 1829 J C Loudon, the Monty Don of his day, called it ‘the most fashionable flower in this country’. By the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign dahlias were all the rage.

With collectors willing to pay up to £25 a tuber, the incentive to produce novel varieties was huge. In 1850 the first Pompon dahlia was raised in Germany, named after the bobble on a French sailor’s hat. Then in 1860 something remarkable happened. A huge shipment of tubers sent from Mexico to Holland became water-damaged on the voyage. All but one of these tubers rotted and Utrecht nurseryman J T van der Berg planted the sole survivor with low expectations. Amazingly, it produced a scarlet bloom whose petals were rolled back and pointed. Van der Berg named the plant dahlia juarezii after the late President of Mexico, Benito Juárez, and described it as ‘equal to the beautiful colour of the red poppy. Its form is very outstanding and different in every respect of all known dahlia flowers.’ Dahlia juarezii was used to create the magnificent cactus flower form and vast array of scarlets, pinks, bronzes and peaches we enjoy today. The height of style was the Victorian dahlia walk - something almost none of us has the time or space to replicate today - two face-to-face borders packed solid with dahlias of all types and colour, with a path running in-between.

Even in its heyday though the dahlia had its detractors. In 1829 nurseryman Thomas Hogg declared the plants ‘too large for the small flower-garden’ and ‘best adapted to fill up the vacancies in the ornamental shrubberies.’ Described variously as ‘loud’ and ‘garish’, dahlias, whose big, bold flowers are always hard to ignore, became a garden casualty at the end of the 19th century, when fashion swung away from brilliantly-colored exotics to a more subdued, perennial palette. The dahlia was simply too vulgar for refined Edwardian tastes.

Move forward thirty years and the picture changed again. In 1929 British plant geneticist W J C Lawrence crossed two species dahlias - a scarlet and a mauve – which resulted in the first modern hybrid. This proved hardier, easier to grow and simpler to hybridise than its Victorian predecessors and the dahlia saw a rennaissance in British, European and American gardens during the 1930s. It coincided with the increasing popularity of allotment gardening and the flowers (which even dahliaphiles admit can be tricky to blend into a traditional herbaceous border)lent themselves to single-bed cultivation for cutting. Alas, the Second World War saw flower beds grubbed up for vegetables in the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign, and with them went nearly all the old dahlia varieties.

When we open a plant catalogue today and see hundreds of dahlias of all shapes, sizes and colours, it’s hard to believe these are recent introductions and that only a handful of heritage varieties has been saved from the compost heap of history. Of the 10,000 or so Victorian dahlias, which rivalled the rose for popularity, only three remain in existence: White Aster (1879), Union Jack (1882) and Kaiser Wilhelm (1892), while hugely popular dahlias from the 1920s and 30s, like the pretty pink Jersey Beauty, can only be hunted down from specialist suppliers.

Old or new, I love them. Flowering for weeks at the tail end of summer, dahlias exude a joie d’vivre absent from their dull and musty rivals, the garage-forecourt chrysanthemums. In the golden days of September the dahlias catch the shortening daylight like jewels.

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018


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