Dreaming of Dahlias


You may be surprised to know that my last two posts (“Reclaiming A Garden Update” and “Now that Frost has come…”) were actually published while I was in Europe!  Isn’t technology amazing?  We made our annual journey to visit our children who live there, a daughter and son-in-law who live in Bari, Italy and a daughter, her husband and two grandchildren who live in Dusseldorf, Germany.  Starting this trip, we met the “Italian” kids in Milan and visited the area around Lake Maggiore and up into the Valle d’Aosta.  It’s a drop-dead gorgeous area with snow-capped mountains, beautiful valleys and picturesque towns, endless vineyards and woodlands galore which were lovely fall colors in late October into November.  We’d picked that area so I could mark off one of the items on my wish list, a visit to Villa Taranto.  This world-famous garden was the life-long passion of Scotsman Captain Neil McEacharn.  I’ll write more about the entire garden in another post, but the first planting that grabbed me was the “Dahlia Maze.”


As you know, I grew dahlias from seed last spring and as they bloomed, I chose the ones that fit my apricot/orange/gold color scheme (like the one above, which looks terrific with the snapdragons, also from seed) and sold or gave away the rest.  I love their waxy, almost camellia-like blooms, sturdy stems, bronze foliage, and long blooming period.  Here’s another that I grew from seed. I love the subtle shadings, don’t you?


Dahlias belong to the Compositae family, mostly native to Mexico, Guatemala and Columbia.  There are about thirty species, but most of today’s cultivars were generated from D. pinnata, D. rosea, and D. coccinea, which were the first three introduced to Europe around 1789 at the botanic garden in Madrid.  They were brought in mainly to study their chubby tubers as a possible food crop, (yes, they are edible) but researchers couldn’t help becoming fascinated with the ornamental possibilities of their colorful blooms.  By special selection, constant crossing and re-crossing, hundreds of fabulous flowers were created.  This process still proceeds today, even though there are hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous cultivars available.  If you want an overdose of dahlias, visit the websites for Swan Island Dahlias, Arrowhead Dahlias, and the National Dahlia Society (UK), which classifies dahlias into ten groups, based mainly on flower shape.


Captain McEacharn was a world-traveler and brought many dahlias and other plants to his first garden, the grounds of his family castle, Galloway House.  He loved the gardens there, but wanted a location with warmer temperatures where he could grow a larger variety of plants, and eventually found a beautiful property in northern Italy and began the 16 hectare garden there in 1931.  Here’s the entrance to the maze.  The path winds behind the tree and snakes back and forth from there.


The Dahlia Maze is just one tiny, but fabulous part of the overall garden.   The maze contains 1500 plants, including over 350 varieties, in a winding path.  The colors range from pure whites to nearly black, with everything in between and many bi-colors.


The flower sizes range from a Ping-Pong ball to a large dinner plate.


The flower forms can be tiny pompoms, waterlily, large quills like this one below,


shaggy spiders,


prim collarettes,


unusual daisy forms like the one below,


and the perfect true “dahlia” form in various sizes.


Plant heights varied from knee-high  (There are dahlias available that are less than 12″ tall, but I didn’t see any that small at Valle Taranto.) to those that towered far above my head. I did not envy the gardener who would be required to climb a ladder to dead-head those beauties.  Some were nearly small trees, with stems so thick no stakes were required.


Walking through that maze was a blissful experience.  Each bloom was exquisite.  Many were being visited by honeybees and butterflies.  Moving slowly was a necessity.  If you looked high, you were likely to miss beautiful flowers that were low, hiding the “knees” of their tall sisters behind them.  I’ve seen many dahlia gardens in Europe (until Villa Taranto, the one at Anglesey Abbey in England had been my favorite) but I’ve never seen one done so well, or as a maze.  I once created a sunflower maze at my herb farm, so I know the work it involves.


I photographed several beauties that I hope to add to my garden. The one above is “Vrouwe Jacoba.”  I doubt any I plant will grow so tall, since my growing season is much shorter, so I may even try some of the giant ones.  If you want to keep them from year to year, the tubers do need to be dug right after frost, before the ground freezes, and stored until the ground is warm again.

Visiting Villa Taranto was a wish-come-true, but it created a new one.  The entire Dahlia Maze is transformed into a Tulip Maze in Spring (usually magical the second week in April) containing over 24,000 bulbs in a rainbow of colors.  Can you picture it, with the snow-capped mountains and the villa in the background?  I can’t, so I think I’ll just have to go see it for myself!


About carolee

A former professional herb and lavender grower, now just growing for joy in my new potager. When I'm not in the garden, I'm in the kitchen, writing, or traveling to great gardens.
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