Some gardeners are very passionate about dahlia flowers. There are special growers that devote their energy to selling or breeding only dahlias, and there are flower shows where awards are given just for dahlias in many different categories. Dahlias are easy to breed and new hybrids emerge often. The dahlia is an ancient flower that is very popular today and found in many gardens all over the world.
The Aztecs wrote about the dahlia in a rare written herbal that was found by Spanish explorers in the 1800s. It was written in the Latin language during the end of the Aztec reign in the 1500s. They used parts of the plant to treat epilepsy. According to the American Dahlia Society, the origin of the flower is in Central America from Mexico to Costa Rica. The flowers were called Acocotli and Cocoxochitl by the ancient Aztecs.
Dahlias are represented in many different forms including those that have a disc with rays all around to those that look like small or large balls. There are those that look similar to a pompon and some with longer petals that resemble spiders. Variety comes in the petals. Some petals twist, some curl; they come flat, straight or pointed, and petals are lance-shaped or cupped. Size differs just about as much with some being very large, about the size of a dinner plate and some tiny like golf balls. About 45 colors are recognized from white to yellow then red and purple and some varieties have more than one color.
Spanish explorers found the flowers growing wild and took them to Europe. In 1789 parts of the flower were transported to Spain to the Royal Gardens in Madrid. There it was named after a Swedish Botanist named Andreas Dahl. In Spain, Antonio Jose Cavarilles began to develop the flower and came up with the first three named species. They were Dahlia pinnata, D. rosea, and D. coccina. From these three species, 35 species are in existence today with over 50,000 named hybrids.
Dahlias were very popular from about 1800 to 1840 and grew in Victorian Gardens in England, America and many other countries. There was a breeding frenzy which brought about all kinds of colors, sizes and shapes. Even today a common gardener can cross breed different types of dahlias to make a hybrid of their own. They breed easily and are interesting to experiment with.
In 1840, there was a potato famine and scientists in France decided to try and use dahlia tubers as food to replace potatoes. This experiment was a failure because the taste was a little less than pleasant. Since then dahlias have never been used for food.
Scientists experimented with dahlias in order to make medicines because of the history of the plant being used to treat epilepsy in ancient times. A substance was found in the tuber that could be used to sweeten food and was used by diabetics. The substance was called Atlantic starch. Once insulin was discovered, dahlias were no longer used in that way, but the substance was found to be useful to test the liver function of humans.