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


SONY DSC

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.

SONY DSC

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

SONY DSC

 

 

Advertisements

History’s Peony: A Search & Rescue

Small pleasures must correct great tragedies,
Therefore of gardens in the midst of war
I boldly tell…

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1946

In this little beloved town of mine some take pleasure in knocking down the very old homes and building instead new homes of fiberglass and vinyl.   One of these very old homes, which was a rental property, had a clump of the most unique peonies I had ever seen.  They were pink with very few petals and a bright yellow center.  I regret I do not have a picture.  They sat sunning themselves by the porch stoop.  There were many flowers as the plant had to be very old.

SONY DSC

 

 

I’ve been told that the house was the general store for the neighborhood a hundred years ago.  Perhaps the store owner himself planted the peonies for his wife or wanted his customers to have a pleasant sight as they approached the store for their sundry goods.

Well, yesterday they knocked the house down; front stoop and all.  Imagine my horror as I listened to the demo trucks rolling over earth and concrete, not knowing the fate of those peonies!   When supper came and the bulldozers ceased.  I went over and surveyed the damage.

Everything was destroyed.  The grass and all the Hostas had been tossed about- landing willy-nilly all over the property.   But, alas remnants of the front stoop remained, and I knew under the earth next to that spot, the tubers might still be hiding.

From reading Vita’s many posts about peonies I know that the tubers should not be buried too deep.  So with a shovel, I sifted through the dirt carefully as if I was searching for the most delicate and rare fossil.  After about fifteen minutes my shovel scraped a single tuber, then another.  With the gentlest touch I brushed and dug to release the rest, and finally pulled up the most gnarly looking group of them I had ever seen.  I imagined the neighbor’s celebrating from their windows (Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched) as they finally realized what I was up to.

SONY DSC
Pictured above: A small portion of what I uncovered

My purpose would have been easily recognized from a distance, as this thing was about a foot and a half in circumference and twisted into many other tubers of varied sizes.  Talking to several neighbors, it seems these peonies were most coveted throughout the hood (don’t call it that), and some were kicking themselves for not saving the flowers before demolition began.  I separated most of the tubers and passed them around while I listened to their words of regret.

SONY DSC

In the midst of war between the historical and the modern, these flowers were spared.  Hopefully, they will produce their fragrant blooms of nostalgia once more.
We won’t know for sure until next year, but if these plants flourish they will be cherished by me all the more, for their journey was difficult and traumatizing.  I don’t know if any of the nutrients and energy remain for them to make it, but I have tried to give them a second life.  We can only wait and see if my efforts will flourish in the years to come.

Thank you for reading!

Please speak up if you’ve ever performed a “search and rescue” with plants.  Did they survive?  Thank you for your feedback.