The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
As the first crisp mornings of September open into still-warm afternoons, the ornamental garden begins to wilt and fade. The gardener may find consolation, though, in the late-season flourishing of the dahlia. September is the month when dahlias take center stage and are featured at botanical gardens throughout the country. The varieties and colors of these tuberous plants are breathtaking. They range from the anemone-flowered dahlia’s pincushion layers of soft pink petals outlined in crimson, to the grand dinner-plate variety in elegant salmon or white, to the delicate scalloped petals of the pompon-flowered dahlia.
Dahlias of today may be show-worthy ornamentals, but they also have a long history steeped in imperial encounters, the rise of science and human desire. In his 16th-century account of the dahlia, the Spanish physician and naturalist Francisco Hernández de Toledo described the plant he encountered in Mexico a generation after Spain’s conquest of the Aztecs. He identified its cure-all medicinal uses and noted that it was known in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs as acocotli or cocoxochitl: the hollow-stemmed plant.
When the plant arrived in Europe in the 18th century, it was renamed in honor of the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, a student of Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. In a moment of taxonomic confusion, the dahlia genus was again renamed the “Georgina,” in honor of Johann Gottlieb Georgi, an eminent botanist who spent his career in imperial Russia. The dahlia is still commonly known today in Russia as the “Georgina.”
The Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid muses in her collection My Garden (Book) upon the history of the dahlia and its appropriation by Europeans. “Who first saw it and longed for it so deeply,” she asks, “that it was removed from the place where it had always been, and transformed (hybridized), and renamed?” Her point is that botanical collecting, scientific classification and horticultural experimentation reflect the heights of human achievement but also the depths of human envy. Domesticating and renaming exotic flora and fauna, Kincaid suggests, is a way for empire-makers and scientists to enhance their own status.
Kincaid implicates herself in this botanical history of the dahlia. She is a West Indian woman whose relationship to English flower gardens is complicated by her having grown up under British rule. On the other hand, she has lived in New England for decades and is suspicious of her own obsession with ornamental seed catalogs. A Harvard professor, she frets about her lop-sided wisteria, her deep self-reflection through plants endearing her to readers similarly preoccupied with gardening.
Consumer desire reached a feverish pitch in the early 19th century, when Dahlia-mania swept England and America. Today, it seems refreshingly wholesome that a population would become so worked up about a genus of flowers, rather than, say, a brand of sneakers.
Carol Howard is Dean of the Faculty at Warren Wilson College. The college offers innovative educational programs ranging from Sustainable Agriculture and Ecological Forestry to Traditional Music of Appalachia. Dahlia Daze takes place this month at Bullington Gardens in Hendersonville.