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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Much I Don't Know About The Dahlia/Until There's No Longer A Hole

Tomorrow I have the day off, and I plan to spend one small part of it checking out the dahlia garden at Golden Gate Park.

I don't know much about the dahlia, but I know a bit about how it begins. When you plant it, the tuber from which it springs should be placed on its side in a hole you've prepared by enriching the soil with manure and compost. This hole should be four to eight inches deep, depending on the variety of dahlia you're growing. As the sprout grows taller, you fill in around it with very rich soil; you keep filling until there's no longer a hole. When I lived in Santa Cruz I planted a tree dahlia. In the span of one season it grew to eight feet, its tops graced with great purple blossoms.

But there's so much about the dahlia that leaves me uncertain. Like, why do they remind me of begonias? And I just can't decide which is more beautiful: the dahlia, with its anemone petals, or the spidery chrysanthemum. Also, I'm not sure how I feel about hybridization, though sometimes I see dahlias in peoples' front yards and I think hybridization's just fine.

Some dahlias look like enormous cosmos, others like pincushions or something that lives in tropical waters. Their colors are vivid and warm as though they've been dyed right into the petals. I'm guessing that it's a compositaceae, but I really don't know that. I'm also unsure about why this flower is considered, by some, a bit vulgar. I guess beauty, if not tempered by modesty, is considered effrontery. But how can a flower be modest?

A good proportion of dahlia enthusiasts are male. Here's what I read in a used Rodale's: these enthusiasts -- at least, the ones who hang with other male horticulturalists -- aren't in their circles deemed "feminine" for loving this flower. After I read this I started to wonder about its author and what kind of secrets he was keeping. I wondered if these secrets had something to do with what lies in the heart of a dahlia.


Blogger josh williams said...

Flowers are good people.

6:54 AM

Blogger ginab said...

spindly, spikey, some words in reaction to the image. 'course my ex-neighbor, that BIG viet-guy, grows dahlias. Not sure if that informs you of the heart. I know in MI you got to bring the puppies in for the winter, and the old neighbor brought them in buckets to his basement where his orchids grow under bright lights. All winter the basement is lit like an open drug pen, like a spaceship readying for take-up, like a beacon, and it almost pulsates depending on the curve of snowbanks and the reflection of the moonlight.

3:10 PM

Blogger matty said...

I like daisies.

so, you really were looking at flowers today. And, here I thought you were giving me a met-a-for about loving life and the day.

I think you are the hippie and I think that writer had more than a few secrets up his, uh, sleeve.

Hope the flowers were awesome. B and I went to the park a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty as much as nature goes. There is a rusted looking building which I believe is that popular museum. B said that the rusted look was on purpose. Hmmm...

5:46 PM

Blogger ing said...


And that's why I choose to commune with them sometimes. . . And men who come bearing flowers; oh my!



Ah, the neighbor. Good reason to steer clear. Nice, though, that dahlia tubers don't need to be dug up in this temperate clime, which is another argument for why you should move to San Fran. In this city people don't light up their fortresses, though there are bars on the downstairs windows.



Yes, I am a hippie, and I'm proud of it. But believe me, daisies are a total hippie flower. Remember the daisy-in-the-barrel-of-the-rifle thing? Hippie!

I was slipping off a metaphor, but I took it very literally, I'm afraid. Here's to designer rust and to beating the elements by joining them!

8:36 PM

Blogger ginab said...

and you read, and so how did it go (only excellent!) but now you're...?

10:16 PM

Blogger Me said...

Must admit I am one of those who finds Dahlias a bit too showy. I want to tell them to relax. We can see you! Tone it down a bit. Don't lay it on so thick, you're lovely, really, we get it!
I'm dying to see this gorgeous 8 foot species though.
Now the Begonia... I adore Begonias... they like shade and some sun and they have those juicy looking leaves. Once I had a house beside a mountain with a front porch edged with boxes that were filled with begonias and I loved it there.
Many of my floral likes and dislikes hinge upon memory and association, I suppose. My mother likes Dahlias and mums. Ha. Go figure.

10:50 PM

Blogger ing said...


Fine. Though I noticed that some people in the audience weren't really listening to the other readers -- one woman was writing a letter, and one was checking her cell. I thought that was strange because everyone had at least one good line.



My mom's favorite flower was the daisy. Her wedding dress had daisies sewn on the border. She liked to listen to Joni and R. Zimmerman, especially right after she'd come back from a successful peace rally.

On begonias, I sort of fear them. It's the fleshy stems, the thick leaves, their pale and waxy complexion. I haven't completely come to terms with exotic shade-lovers. . . My father loved 'em.

Here's a pretty bad picture of a tree dahlia. In this picture, you get the idea of their height (they can grow up to twenty feet tall).

11:47 PM

Blogger Karen Little said...

Hehe - this reminds me a lot of Leon's obsession with orchids. There are many parallels - the huge variety in species, their apparent 'vulgarity', and the way their fans are more often than not male.

What do you think it is that makes us pick a particular flower to love?

10:15 AM

Blogger ing said...


I'm going to run on over to Leon's to get an answer from him, but first, allow me to speculate wildly. . .

I think it's this: orchids and dahlias come in many varieties, and many varieties have been created, by men. Because men, I guess, are supposed to be "scientists" and "discoverers," men were encouraged to pursue their dreams of being botanists, to identify, hybridize, collect things that are beautiful and rare, to exercise some kind of control or power over the world and the things that exist in it. When one discovers a new variety, one becomes the "father" of that variety and can even name the flower after themselves. There's something about male culture that wants to colonize, maybe? To lay claim? To leave some kind of legacy that begins with a name?

As for claiming a certain flower, though, the reasons may be more personal or emotional than all that. I think there's a certain edge of competition when we're talking about rare varietals. Me, I can't really say which is my own favorite flower. I've never been fond of daffodils, and I definitely prefer wildflowers to garden varieties. Perhaps my favorite is the California Poppy, which, in the spring, you can find in any ditch or field or heap of rubble -- if you live in my area of the world, anyway. There's something very utilitarian and carrotlike about the California Poppy, and I'm not referring to the color so much as the leaves and the root. I love their toughness, and they look exquisite the way they carpet the rolling green hills, hugging the contours of the land.

4:34 PM

Blogger josh williams said...

I had to learn some poems in 5th grade, this was one...I had to google cause I could not remember much of it, but I do know it makes more sense than it did in fifth grade...This is about all I know about flowers.

I WANDERED lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in thebreeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

7:46 PM

Blogger ing said...

Josh, babe, Wordsworth is probably the reason I never liked daffodils -- before I hit college, it seemed as though this poem was in every reader of every English class I took. Back then I thought it was sooooo corny, all that "jocund company" noise. Plus, this poem was often used as a way of teaching us "personification." The term, personification, was pounded into our heads again and again and the smart kids would always sprinkle their papers with the word.

Now, I see that this is a carefully crafted piece with a nice arc. I guess it's basically saying that the surprising scenes we happen upon when we're walking around outside make the rest of our lives pleasurable. I don't mind the sound of that.


7:59 PM

Blogger Me said...

I adore the shade lover in all creatures. That must be why I love the fleshy begonia.
But that dahlia is wonderful. I'm sure I've never seen one. It's so absurdly huge and doesn't seem to know when to stop. Very Alice in Wonderland. One day, if I ever get my perfect piece of land and my perfect house I'll plant those.

8:54 PM

Blogger purplesimon said...

All I knows is snails eats 'em. They love 'em, sans ketchup, but with a side salad of marigolds.

purplesimon out...

3:26 AM

Blogger josh williams said...

Yes, it does not have to be your favorite but all these years later I am reminded and think he did well.
We have to remember he wrote in olden times. The poor fella just didn’t know any better; he made due with what he had.

9:32 PM

Blogger ticharu said...

Can you eat them???
Ing sweetie I implore you most implicitly and improperly to visit Legs and click there upon something called FBI WARNING! That you may be impossibly impressed. :)

6:27 AM

Blogger The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Hey! Sorry, I've been a bit off the radar of late. The daisy family's name has now changed from Compositae to Asteraceae. A rose by any other name...

I think your description of the male relationship to botany is truly spot-on: making a new hybrid is a way of staking your claim, saying this is mine, a proxy for the peacock's tale, more a way of intimidating other males than to coax a female. A colleague in my lab is breeding new varieties of Streptocarpus flowers, and no doubt they will carry names like *Joe's Gold, Joe's Splendour or Joe's Dream. [*Name has been changed to protect the guilty.]

I love California poppies, and I also think them carrot-like (they also remind me of dill... but would they go well with smoked salmon and capers?)

On another note, tree dahlias really are giants of the vegetable kingdom and I often go for walks around the Botany building on campus, just to get a look at their graceful nodding stems high above me. Dahlias are actually regarded as quite vulgar in South Africa (you often used see them growing outside poor white people's homes in the western suburbs of Pretoria, as well as at sanatoriums and old age homes in the 1980s).

But the new cultivars are changing all that and becoming quite de rigeur, don't you know. But nothing will beat a Gerbera in the fashionable daisy stakes.

4:28 AM

Blogger ginab said...

Oh look, a gerber lover! I guess Dahlias are to SA what white lilies are to the USA. Maybe in SA white lilies (aka 'calla', 'arum' or 'funeral') grow near a great bridge, in a park open to the broad public. free and open.

7:34 AM

Blogger The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Actually, both gerberas and arum lilies are indigenous to South Africa. The pure white arums grow down in the Cape, mostly in moist, boggy areas. Some yellow kinds grow around Dullstroom, the nation's trout fishing capital. Gerberas grow around the Baberton area (they are also known as Baberton Daisies), but I've never seen those in the wild. The unhybridised, plain red ones are an endangered species, threatened by habitat destruction and urbanisation

6:59 AM

Blogger ginab said...

In America the arums appear almost like guests at funerals. So over here we don't associate them with South Africa. We kind of grieve, or we run from them. People have all kinds of reactions to them, to the arums, but these are typically rooted to the dry region of the memory bank local to funerals.

7:35 AM


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