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With their power dialed down, dahlias can play well with others

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, December 3, 2009

Growing dahlias for show is a fine hobby, but the practice of devoting whole beds to jumbo-size blooms has grated against those who see a gentler and more integrated role for this tender New World perennial.

The plantsman E.A. Bowles found the more gaudy hybrids to be "some of the horrors of modern garden nightmares." That was in 1915.

In recent years, a lot of lovely and more diminutive varieties have surfaced, and they look wonderful tucked into a garden border of hardy perennials, grasses and other herbaceous material.

The dahlia's beauty, in my book, lies in the sheer saturation of the petal colors, so if you're straying beyond the white ones, you have to think about where to plant and with what. Even the pinks can be blazingly hot.

The classic border dahlia is the Bishop of Llandaff, with scarlet, semi-double flowers branching from deeply cut and dark purple leaves. The stems have a purple cast to them. This last trait has been tinkered with to provide stems that appear black, and I love those dramatic dahlias, especially with yellow or orange single-flowered types. The bright yellow variety Party is a great example. So are Juliet, a vibrant lilac color; Flame, red-orange; Bishop of Leicester, streaked lavender; and Bishop of Canterbury, with single flowers that are an intense maroon.

The Mystic series of hybrids has similar garden value: compact, dark-stemmed, multi-branching and free-flowering. Mystic Desire is a lovely scarlet dahlia. Mystic Spirit is a soft tawny orange. Classic Elise is a little more double, a little taller but similar in hue. The Dahlia coccinea is a charming species, variable in color but commonly a pleasing scarlet hue and taller than the others, growing to six feet or more.

If you like dahlias with a bit more beef to the bloom, David Howard is a striking variety without being too dandy. It is also compact and dark-leafed, and the flowers are double and colored an apricot-orange.

Cathy Umphrey, director of horticulture at Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, is particularly fond of a variety named Kingston, a tightly petaled decorative type that has "a wonderful combination of peach and lavender," she says. She also likes varieties of the waterlily form, named for its resemblance to the aquatic plant. The late garden writer Christopher Lloyd enjoyed a yellow-green waterlily variety named Glorie van Heemstede, which he would pair with the wispy silver and blue of Russian sage.

Some mail-order nurseries are taking orders now for spring shipping or at least have 2010 catalogues. Sources include Swan Island Dahlias (800-410-6540, http://www.dahlias.com), Plant Delights (919-772-4794, http://www.plantdelights.com) and Brent and Becky's Bulbs (877-661-2852, http://www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com).

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