Floral fireworks: the treasures you'll find in the National Dahlia Collection

Floral fireworks: the treasures you'll find in the National Dahlia Collection

Cornwall's National Dahlia Collection was due to be recovered in 2020, but was rescued just in time. Kirsty Fergusson visits 1,700 dahlias now happily settled in their new home and discovers the best ones to order now for late summer colour. Photos by Mimi Connolly.

For many holidaying families, the long journey westward following the A30 through Cornwall is continued by the prospect of being the first to catch a glimpse of St Michael's Mount, whose craggy landscape crowns the wide blue bay below Penzance.

But, for 22 years, this most striking icon on the Cornish coast has faced stiff competition from the fields glimpsed from the roadside fence at Varville Farm, when, from mid-July to early November, thousands of commercially grown dahlias erupted in an explosion Glorious color. But it wasn't just stock trading; This was the National Dahlia Collection and visitors were free to wander among the branded beds, simply to admire them if they so chose.

National Dahlia Collection in Kahland, Cornwall. © Mimi Connolly

The National Collection was formed in 1983 by David Brown in Oxfordshire, but both man and plant found a new home soon after in Cornwall, first at Dochy College, Rosewarne, before being transferred in 1998 to the guardianship of Winchester Growers (later Greenyard). Flowers UK) in Varville. However, in 2020, the multinational fruit and flower company that operates the Varvill Farm site decided to close this wing of its business, and 22 species and 1,700 cultivars of dahlias faced sudden extinction.

Louise Danks was teaching horticulture at Rosewarne School when she heard the desperate news. After first working at Farvel Farm as a 17-year-old student, growing dead dahlias, she returned to Farvel in the late 1990s, became production manager and produces 40,000 hand-rooted cuttings each year. Mrs. Danks was mentored by Mr. Brown and Mark Twining, world-renowned experts in dahlia cultivation who helped build the collection.

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National Dahlia Collection Holder Louise Danks with her father Chris. © Mimi Connolly

Years later, with her Q diploma and a stint as a specialist television researcher and program director, she returned to Farvel again. In 2018, she won her first gold medal with Chelsea, and 2019 proved to be a great year as well. This was when the Greenyard Flowers display garden included part of a plot adjacent to a mixed border, designed to showcase the diversity of species and show how many dahlia species blend in with other plants. A year later, when she returned to Rosewarne to teach horticulture, news reached her of the group's imminent demise.

Ms Danks rallied friends, students and her father Chris (who is a professional gardener and owns a large truck), begged temporary shelter for the college's unused polytunnels, and in the fall of 2020, begged a squad of volunteers who lifted and transported the collection in 5,000 carefully labeled boxes to Rosewarne.

Claret, like 'Chimborazo' (left), was first bred in France in the early 1900s; And (right) one of the best dahlias, D. merckii. © Mimi Connolly

After an anxious winter, when Mrs. Danks asked everyone she could think of if they had a spare acre or acre to grow precious tubers, she was delighted to find the Kehelland Trust (a market garden offering a gardening experience for adults with learning or physical disabilities) nearby. Camborne offered her a spare field.

Beneath the rabbit-munched grass, the soil was sandy and poorly drained — a necessity for dahlias, which enjoy water, but hate heavy, wet soil. Fortunately, spring came in late 2021, and once again, Ms. Danks mobilized a volunteer workforce to prepare the ribbon beds. On May 16, the first tuber was planted. Despite the abundance of root-eating skin larvae, which the team carefully removed from the soil, and the continued presence of rabbits, the success rate was around 100%. By late summer, the field was full of color and received its first enthusiastic visitors.

The peach flower of the dahlia 'Sheep's Memory' (left) and the red velvet flower of D. 'Happy Single Romeo'. © Mimi Connolly

In November, more volunteers arrived to help with the enormous task of cutting the plants down to ground level and a truckload of Cornish Black Gold (compost from the Green Waste Company) was placed as a thick, loose layer of mulch around each plant. This is as much about preventing evaporation from free-draining soil in the summer as it is about keeping the tubers warm and dry over the winter, Ms. Danks explains.

However, not all gardens have the same dahlia-friendly soil and climate as Kehland's, and because the tubers will rot if left in cold, wet soil over the winter, growers in less favorable parts of the county—or country—have found that they do. It is easier to grow them in relative isolation, and to raise the tubers in the fall without the risk of harming other plants. Tulip bulbs are often planted at the same time to take advantage of fallow time and space.

One solution, provided there is dry shelter for the winter, is to grow dahlias in pots, either from seed or rooted cuttings, and place them in and out of bounds at the beginning and end of the season. The Old Rose Garden at Great Dixter, which became a model for temperate exotic planting in the 1990s, has captured the imagination of dahlia lovers (and skeptics) alike.

D. “Karma Sangria” sits on a long stem (left), and D. Coccinea serif (right). © Mimi Connolly

The more colorful dahlias—the dark-leafed, orange-flowered 'David Howard'—played a prominent role—in a new context of banana trees, crimson-and-flame cannas, indigo sage, and woodlands. Verbena bonariensis and Brugmansia chartreuse. Everything had to be lifted at the end of the season, except the bananas, which were wrapped up for the winter, and the verbena, which had planted itself anyway, and the tubers strictly compatible with the cropping system removed.

Once classified as difficult to grow and labor-intensive, best left to professionals and older masters with time to spare, the dahlia flower has become something of an emblem for adventurous gardeners in temperate gardens around the world, seeking to extend the season late into the season. An explosion of color in the borders. Mrs. Danks fully aligns with this desire and is already producing seeds and rooted cuttings of species and varieties respectively, suitable not only for monoculture growers, but also for gardeners looking to revive their mixed border planting schemes.

Border Force: Dr. “Martin's Frontier Victory” (left) and Karma Yin Yang (right). © Mimi Connolly

Miss Danks sits on the RHS Dahlia Trials Committee, and decides which new varieties receive an Award of Merit (AGM) – 'Crème de Cassis' was top of the AGM list in 2023. But if anyone deserves a medal, it's Mrs Danks and her father. Between them, they have not only saved an important plant collection, but a much-loved part of Cornwall's floral heritage.

The National Dahlia Collection, Kehelland, Cornwall, can be visited on Wednesdays, 5pm-8pm, and Saturdays, 10am-4pm, during the flowering season – for details, see www.kehellandtrust.org.uk.


    (Marks for translation) The finest gardens in Britain 

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