Images courtesy of Nellie Evans.
Unlike their canine counterpart, the dahlia days of summer do not signify a seasonal extreme at the height of the summer. Rather, dahlias in the Northwest coincide with more ambiguous weather, a transition from summer to fall. The dahlia days of summer throw us into wardrobe confusion: half the population leaves home in shorts and flip flops, while the other half dons scarves and boots.
Blooming contemporaneously with this cacophonic fashion show, dahlias’ exuberant colors and forms rival the style mishmash prompted by a sunny day with a cool breeze. Their vast array of shapes, sizes and hues are a welcome and spectacular sight, especially when displayed en masse.
In Tacoma we are fortunate to have one of the best places in the nation for viewing such a display. The Dahlia Trial Garden, located in Point Defiance Park, is one of only eight trial gardens sanctioned by the American Dahlia Society (ADS) in the United States. The Washington State Dahlia Society, which started in Tacoma more than one hundred years ago, serves as the steward of the Trial Garden.
This past week, under the guise of writing this article, I joined a public work party to care for the dahlias. I should point out that I wouldn’t be writing this article if I did not simply adore dahlias, with their brilliant magentas, canary yellows, tangerines and vermillions, and their Seuss-like puffs, poms, and poofs. May my bias be known.
At the work party, I met Marilyn Walton, secretary of the Washington State Dahlia Society and the Trial Garden director, who taught me about the garden and the intense and fascinating process dahlias go through to become classified as a show worthy.
From Seedling to Show
Every year, dahlia originators send tubers to the trial gardens with the hope that the judges will rank their dahlia highly, signifying its strength as a show dahlia. Show dahlias must meet very specific criteria to which garden dahlias are not beholden – if you’ve ever wondered about the genesis of the term “garden-variety” (meaning common and unremarkable), now you know.
To qualify for judging, the originator must have started the dahlia from seed four seasons previous. Dahlia’s propagate through various methods, but it is through seed that dahlias produce new varieties, rather than copies. The purpose of waiting multiple seasons assures that the dahlia is stable. In contrast, tubers purchased from a big-box store are often young varieties and may have anomalies from what is shown on the package. One of the benefits of show dahlias is that they promise a specific outcome.
In addition to stability, show dahlias are judged on their form, color, substance, stems, foliage, and distinction. Senior judges use these qualities to give the dahlia a score out of 100 and, to be considered a show dahlia, it must score an 85 or better.
The senior judges do not make their determinations lightly. To become an ADS-accredited senior judge involves rigorous training – classes, tests, practical experience, and a four-year apprenticeship – that takes about eight years to complete.
Once classified as a show-quality dahlia, the originator names his/her bloom and it is added to the American Dahlia Society’s classification book. These dahlias then become available to the public for purchase in future seasons.
At the end of the season, the plants are dug up and destroyed unless the originator retrieves it (some trial gardens will mail the tuber back for a fee). Tubers are destroyed, regardless of scoring, because the new variety belongs to the originator: destruction prevents theft or copying.
This year, the Tacoma Trial Garden received 65 tubers from all over the world to grow, care for and judge. To reach the necessary quorum, senior judges come from dahlia clubs around the Northwest to rank the blooms at Point Defiance Park at the peak of the season. The Tacoma Trial Garden has a special draw as most of the others are much smaller, limiting their number of entries.
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Marilyn Walton told me, “but I have been to all the other trial gardens and this [the Tacoma Trial Garden] is the best. But we that’s because we don’t do it alone. We have a true partnership with Metro Parks.”
Indeed, all submitted tubers are mailed directly to the Metro Parks Tacoma greenhouse where they are planted and given the care they need before being transplanted in the garden. Likewise, Metro Parks staff water the dahlias, sustaining their healthy development.
The Washington Dahlia Society and Metro Parks contribute significant work to the success of the Tacoma Trial Garden, making this special garden instrumental in expanding the variety of quality dahlias available. The beautiful blooms that result from this partnership are a must-see for locals and visitors alike in August and September.
Walton says that she feels the appreciation of the community every time she works in the garden because passersby always stop to thank them.
Washington State Dahlia Society events are free and open to the public, from work parties, meetings, shows, and tuber and plant sales. “Just be careful,” says Walton with a laugh, “You can get obsessed!” I’m well on my way.
I love the versatility of dahlias: they perk up my dining room table equally well whether I’m serving a summer salad or a fall soup, researching hikes or exhibitions, folding tank tops or sweaters. Dahlias’ enticing and gorgeous blossoms, their seeming spontaneity, variety and cheerfulness help to ease the transition from summer to fall, even when I’m not quite sure what to wear in the morning.
Trial Garden work parties
September 17 and 24, 9:30 am
5400 N. Pearl St.
The Washington State Dahlia Society meets the third Monday of every month at the Fircrest Community Center at 555 Contra Costa Ave. at 7 pm.
Note: The next meeting is September 17 and will have a seedling contest, where members can show off their experimental dahlias.
Watch the Washington State Dahlia Society website for the dates and times for future tuber and plant sales, which take place in late winter and early spring. They also host a sales booth at the Puyallup Spring Fair.
Dahlia shows are also free and open to the public. The annual local show usually takes place around Labor Day weekend in Freighthouse Square. In 2014, Tacoma will host the ADS National Dahlia Show at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. The show will bring dahlia enthusiasts from around the world.
The Puget Sound Dahlia Association is another great local resource that produces an annual news publication called Dahlias of Today with information about the newly inducted show dahlia’s from the Tacoma Dahlia Trial Garden.