Early Days for Dahlias

My mother grew dahlias in the garden of a house we lived in when I was a teenager; a glowing, island bed of them in a big, green sea of lawn. I admired them (and have a memory of dancing by them at night, alone, by the light from the house windows, suddenly joyful about being alive). They were nearly all of deep, vivid shades but the variety in their shapes brought up another memory of the wallpaper on our bedroom wall when my sisters and I were small. It looked something like this and I would lie in bed studying the different flower patterns very carefully. (Easy to guess in which decade we were born!)

Flowery sixties wall paper

All the same I never thought of growing dahlias myself until recent years when the tubers have been in the news as an edible crop. James Wong promoted them in his book, "Homegrown Revolution" and explains,
"Before you dismiss the idea of eating dahlia yams as some kind of weird, hippy idea, consider this: dahlias were originally brought to our shores as a prized edible crop, while runner beans were ironically first introduced as an ornamental plant. It seems like we just got our horticultural wires crossed. Cultivated for hundreds of years by the Aztecs, and still popular in Mexico today, dahlia’s sweet, starchy tubers are delicious as crisps, chips and roasties – and even in ice cream!"
So this year I bought three, red and yellow, cactus dahlia tubers from the hardware store in the high street and planted them. One failed (presumably a red one), but two yellow ones came up.

Dahlia flower

I dug up some tubers to eat yesterday. (I replanted three straight away figuring that if dahlias are going to be a food item in our perennial vegetable plot they will have to survive the winter in the ground. I'm willing to give them a thick straw mulch but that's all the fuss they're getting.)

Dug dahlia tubers
Easy to dig
Peeled dahlia tubers
Easy to peel

Boiled dahlia tubers
Took 20 minutes to boil
Fried dahlia tubers
Quicker to fry 

Boiled they were quite horrible! They were much nicer fried (like a juicy chip) which is why there were only a few left by the time I remembered to take a photograph.

But as Fionnuala Fallon reports in The Irish Times the flavour varies hugely between varieties and species. We have to find the good-tasting ones and/or breed new ones. James Wong recommends yellow-flowered cactus types such as 'Yellow Chiffon', 'Amherst Regina' and 'Inland Dynasty' and notes that enthusiasts rate a pom-pom type 'Yellow Gem'. I would like to see if the hardy dahlia, Dahlia merckii, tastes any good. The Swiss nursery Lubera is selling a variety of dahlias they have selected for flavour. (I believe we'll be able to visit Emma Cooper's blog soon once she has harvested her Lubera dahlia tubers and find out what she thinks of them). And William Whitson of Cultivariable in America has started an Edible Dahlias Facebook group where members are trying different types and pooling their findings.

There are 42 species of dahlia and 57000 registered cultivars. It is definitely early days for dahlias.

N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.