Dahlia: A Nuisance

…a dahlia is a nuisance, because its tubers have to be lifted in autumn, stored in a frost-proof place, started into growth under glass in April, and planted out again at the end of May.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958


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I had no idea what a dahlia was when my husband brought home a bag full of tubers one Spring afternoon.  He had been working on a road project that day and an old Italian man gave him a tour of his garden.  He had brought his dahlia tubers from Italy.  They had been split numerous times since I’m sure, but the DNA from the original remained. I had no idea what would pop up when my husband showed me the long ugly tubers, which I thought looked more like spindly potatoes.  The old Italian man warned Bryan that the tubers must be planted in the ground that week or the flowering will come too late.

I thought I would dig a deep hole and plop the tubers in like some sort of bulb.  No sir!  Like magic, Bryan saw the old Italian man again that week.  Like a wise shaman of flowers he informed my husband that the Dahlia tubers should fear no risk of frost because they are taken out of the ground directly after flowering and put in box of peat moss and placed in a warm spot for the winter.   He went on to explain that because of this the tubers do not have to be planted very deep.  In fact, the tubers like to be just a couple inches below the surface.  Instead of planting the long ugly things vertical like one would suspect and would be the easiest task, one must instead dig a horizontal hole and lay the tuber inside like one would a casket.  This is precisely why they are considered a nuisance and I almost resented the Italian gift, but the flowers are so beautiful it’s worth the trouble.  So every fall we exhume the ugly tubers from their resting place and follow the advice of the wise old Italian.

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Yes, it’s true the tubers are very ugly indeed and looking at it one might think in fact they all should be buried like little caskets because they look to be dead.  I myself threw one unremorsefully into the vegetable garden thinking the last growth had sucked the life out of it.  But to my surprise, my son found it growing amongst the vegetables happy as a clam.  I have since transplanted it into my garden and it is now the biggest, healthiest of the lot. Don’t be fooled by those ugly little tubers, the flowers they produce are one of the most striking flowers of all, in my opinion.  They are related to the zinnia and they have the long lasting quality of keeping itself fresh in water, and I’ll bet they dry nicely too although I haven’t tried.  Perhaps I’ll cut one and see; as Vita always says, “a good gardener is one who makes experiments”.

They are somewhat of a nuisance though, because they can not be forgotten as a perennial or a bulb would be.  Because of our cold climate, they must be raised up out of the ground and stored

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Deadly Nightshade

This remedy she rejected, saying that she would rather die than do anything that she believed to be a crime or contrary to God’s will.

-Vita Sackville-West
Saint Joan of Arc: 1936

In one of my favorite books (I mean, if I was stranded on a deserted island (touch wood), this would be one of the books I would take) the protagonist tries to unsuccessfully kill herself with the deadly nightshade berry.

Memoirs of a Midget by Walter De la Mare caught my eye as I wandered about my favorite used bookshop Downtown Booksellers.  I intended to give it to my brother as a birthday gift, but as I read the first page I became so enamored with its story and prose that I ended up keeping it for myself.

It was like a secret.  Its title was practically unknown to all, and its author, equivalent to an indie rock group with just a small following.  Even so, it remains one of my favorites and I can’t understand why it doesn’t stand alongside the classics of Austen or Fitzgerald.

SONY DSC“Its bitter juices jetted out upon cheek, mouth, and tongue, for ever staining me with their dye.  Their very rancor shocked by body wide awake.  Struck suddenly through with frightful cold and terror, I flung the vile thing down, and scoured my mouth with the draggled hem of my skirt.” – Walter De la Mare; Memoirs of a Midget 

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I realize Vita would not have had much experience with nightshade, but I was riding along the Paint Creek Trail the other night and saw its scraggly vine creeping along the riverbank.  Its flowers were beginning to turn themselves into berries.  This is where the toxin alkaloid solanine dwells, and I was reminded of the passage above.

The toxin however exists only in the leaves and un-ripened berries, although I wouldn’t eat the ripe ones either.  The toxin can kill you if injested in large quantities, and it is known to cause problems in small children if eaten in any quantity.

Solanine contains properties which are anti-fungal and pesticidal.  This is the plant’s natural defense, making it entirely disease and pest resistant.  Can one of you rosarians please get some of this Solanine in a rose bush?   We’d never have problems again – Yippee!

An interesting fact; this toxin is also produced in potatoes right under the skin, so green un-ripe potatoes should always be peeled.  In fact, some of the toxin still exists in ripe potatoes!  You have to deep-fry them to eliminate most of it.  Boiling doesn’t do the job as well.

Thanks for reading!  Go out and get yourself a copy of that book!!

If you’ve read it, what did you think?