We have a passion for Dahlias. So much so, that they might be more easily associated with summer in England than with their real origins. The truth is that Dahlias are among the first ornamental plants to be 'improved' or hybridized, and just how long ago this started would be hard to pin down.
It all began with the Aztecs. Spanish conquistadors reported that they not only cultivated edible plants, but loved their flower gardens. Everybody, from the riches to the poorest, would have a space dedicated to flower-growing, and the Dahlia had a very special place here.
By this time, the Aztecs had already begun to breed Dahlias selectively, creating varieties that were distinctively different to their wild ancestors. And when special flowers were planted, there would be elaborate ceremonies including animal sacrifices in which blood was poured onto the soil to celebrate the new garden introduction.
A Lasting Love-Affair with Dahlias
It wasn’t long before these magnificent plants made their way to Europe, and thence to England and the UK in general. Here, the love-affair with Dahlias continued and so did plant breeding programs that produced new and spectacular Dahlia varieties. Today, most of us still love the Dahlia in all its diversity of colours and forms, and many of the varieties we grow today are historical strains that first gained popularity a hundred or more years ago.
Bishop Dahlias are among these, and they are particularly striking. They may only reach a height of around a metre, and their flowers may only be about ten centimetres across, but they refuse to be overlooked. Part of this is due to their very dark, almost eggfruit-black foliage. I’d certainly grow them even if that were all they had going for them, but the dramatic foliage is only the beginning of their summer bounty.
'Bounty' isn’t an overstatement. Bishop Dahlias seem to flower their hearts out. What they lack in size, they make up for in the sheer number of blooms they produce. Combine that with the dark foliage, and what you have is absolute wow-factor.
Bishop Dahlias: The Dahlia for Dahlia-Haters
While I was looking around for a few more fun and interesting facts on Bishop Dahlias, I came across multiple references to 'Dahlia haters'. At first, I was mystified. How could anybody hate Dahlias? After all, they’re beautiful, versatile and so diverse that you might as well say you hate plants.
Finally, the penny dropped. Dahlias, especially dinnerplate Dahlias, make me think of my granny. For me, that’s not an unpleasant memory, but at some point, they got a reputation for being “old lady” flowers and fell from favour. Another thing people didn’t seem to like about Dahlias was the need to stake certain of the larger-flowered varieties.
At all events, Dahlias are coming back into fashion in a big way, and even the Dahlia haters seem ready to admire the Bishop Dahlias. Maybe that’s because they don’t need staking, although to be honest, staking doesn’t bother me. Plant the stake with the tuber, and the leaves all but conceal it. But that’s not an issue with Bishop Dahlias because they don’t get top-heavy like their larger-blooming cousins.
Reasons to Love Your Bishops
Apart from not needing staking, there are plenty of other reasons to love your Bishop Dahlias. The stunning foliage is a great start. Then there’s the number of blooms they produce, and finally, they’re very easy to grow. That’s right: you don’t really need Aztec libations of blood to get them going. Water will do.
In mild areas, and provided you have freely draining soil, a thick layer of mulch is enough to protect the tubers in winter. If your soil tends to be wet or if the winters are cold, you simply lift them and store them. I’m a bit of a skinflint when it comes to buying plants, so getting this amount of bang for my buck appeals to me. Besides, once I get to like a plant, I don’t want to lose it, so I’m happy that I can keep my favourite Dahlias going for successive seasons.
Farmer Gracy has stocked up with Bishop Dahlias, so if you’d like to get started with them, you won’t have far to look. Choose between red (Bishop of Llandaff), white (Bishop of Dover), peachy-orange (Bishop of Oxford), and soft gold (Bishop of York) flowers to contrast with that magnificent foliage. Let the romance of Dahlias live on!