History of the Dahlia

The Dahlia has become so entrenched in popular English and European gardening that you can be forgiven for thinking it must be of European origin, but you would be wrong. It is in fact a relatively new discovery, finding its way to the wealthy estates of Spain in 1791, as an export of South American exotic species. 

Stranger still, the roots are the Dahlia are just about edible as so it was originally brought back to Europe to be considered as a food plant, and not an ornamental flowering plant!

The Dahlia and the Aztecs

The young prince Montezuma
There is more to these plants than being simply discovered by a passing botanist.

Interestingly, the early history of these plants is closely linked to the Aztecs, Montezuma and the period that passed before and shortly after the Spanish conquest! 

When Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors entered the Aztec city Huaxtepec in 1519, they were the first Europeans to view the most impressive of Emperor Montezuma’s botanical gardens. Plants from all over the empire were propagated there for the pleasure of the Aztec upper classes.

Undoubtedly, one of the most curious sights in the garden at Huaxtepec would have been the incredible Dahlia imperialis, the tree form of out garden dahlia which the Aztecs called acocotli - meaning water pipe in their language.

These plants grew to a spectacular thirty feet tall and had blossoms ten inches in diameter. The stems were hollow, at least three inches in diameter, and used for transporting water or even as a source of water itself.

The young prince Montezuma took the throne in 1502 and ruled for the next 18 years until he was captured by Cortes in 1520.

The history of the Dahlia
During this period there were a number of eyewitness accounts that described the horticultural practices that were engaged by the Aztecs during this time.

It was part of the Aztec culture for the ruling classes to express their wealth and power by constructing a series of specific gardens.

Each garden was designed to fulfill a single purpose, for example medicinal plants, cut flowers, ornamental or food plants. 

The plants found within these gardens were greatly valued by the Aztec nobles, so much so that and every new plant introduction involved a rather 'over-the-top' ceremony.

These ceremonies began with the arrival of the plants gifted by wealth noblemen. The plants were 'balled and burlapped' a process where the roots are enclosed in earth and the whole specimen wrapped with richly decorated mantels.

Now this is where it gets serious. Priests were then summoned to make animal sacrifices for each planting, spilling the blood of the offering, as well as some drawn from their own ears, onto the soil prepared for the plant!

The Aztecs used Dahlias for food and medicine, and Dahlia motifs decorated the helmets of the Aztec warriors.

The petals of the Dahlia were used in ceremonies, including human sacrifice to their sun god.

In 1570, 50 years after the Spanish conquest, King Philip of Spain sent Francisco Hernandez to Mexico to make a study of the natural resources of the country.

The Dahlia and the Europeans

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'
In Europe the dahlia was named by Abbé Cavanilles - Director of Real Madrid Botanical Gardens - in honour of the botanist Anders Dahl, a student to the world famous Carolus Linnaeus. Although due to a slight misunderstanding, the dahlia was named Georgina in Germany after the botanist Johann Gottlieb Georgi, a name it bears even today.

Cavanilles sent seeds that he had collected from three dahlia species to M. Thibaud of France in the year 1802. These initial named species imported into Europe were Dahlia pinnata, Dahlia rosea and Dahlia coccinea.

They were passed on to the botanists of the Paris Museum of Natural History where they were grown and tested, developing the modern procedures for the cultivation of dahlias.

A breakthrough occurred in 1884 when Rivoire of Lyon, France introduced the first all black foliage dahlia under the name of ‘ Lucifer’. 

This dark foliage then went on to figure prominently in the introduction of many of the modern Peony-flowered dahlias, often used as one of the parents in cross breeding further varieties.

In 1927, Stephen Treseder of Cardiff, Wales introduced a dark Red Peony type which also had the 'black' foliage and central disc. It was originally called Dahlia’ Bishop Hughes it went on to be called ‘BISHOP of LLANDAFF’ after Hughes kicked up a fuss.


To bring us up to date there are three dahlias in my garden including the outrageous tree dahlia. So there we have it, myself and King Montezuma are separated by just a single plant!

Main image credit  - Loïc Evanno
Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' credit Ramin Nakisa
Scarlet Dahlia illustration - S. Edwards, Sansum - The Botanical Magazine Vol. 20 This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or less.
Montezuma image credit - artist unknown. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or less.

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