Empress Josephine Introduced Dahlias

Empress Josephine introduced dahlias.

It is spring and time to think about planting dahlia tubers.

Down in my basement I have containers of dahlias that I stored there right after last Thanksgiving. They now sit, wrapped in newspapers, in large plastic containers

Within the next few weeks I will take them outdoors, inspect each, and plant them for that unbeatable fall color that dahlias provide in the garden.

From its home in Mexico the dahlia has been on a long journey to become a gardener’s favorite.

In the early 1800s Empress Josephine introduced the French to dahlias.

English garden writer Penelope Hobhouse says in her book Plants in Garden History, “Josephine was one of the earliest to develop dahlias (already by 1789 cultivated as varieties in the botanic garden in Madrid), obtaining new seeds of species through the botanical explorers Aim Bonpland and Friedrich Humbolt direct from Mexico.”

Josephine cultivated her dahlias in the gardens at Malmaison, her summer palace.

Napoleon liked the formal garden style that one could enjoy at the grand garden of Versailles.  Malmaison, however, took on the design that Josephine preferred, the more natural look of the English garden, with its lawns and scattered trees. [below

View of the Park at Malmaison [Artist, Auguste Simon Garneray]

Josephine loved gardening, and developed her garden as plant collections, including roses, begonias, cape heaths, and dahlias, according to English garden writer David Stuart’s book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens.

Dahlia historian Martin Krahl agrees.

He writes in his fascinating study called Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology: The Dahlia in History  “The Empress was single-handedly responsible for introducing many exotic plants to Europe.”

After Josephine received some of the earliest dahlia seeds in France, her love of dahlias would spread.

Around the same time that she was growing dahlias in her garden, England and other European countries, then America, also adopted the dahlia.


London’s Holland House Introduced Dahlias

London’s Holland House Introduced Dahlias

A late eighteenth century painting of dahlias in England indicates the plant, native to Mexico, had already appeared in the country.

It would take a couple of decades, however, to assume its popularity among gardeners everywhere.

In early nineteenth century England the dahlia made its grand appearance in the garden of Lord and Lady Holland. It was after that time that the plant became so popular that by the 1830s some over eager gardeners even became afflicted with ‘dahlia mania.’

Their estate called Holland House in London’s Kensington section had become a gathering place for artists, writers, and politicians.

In her book Holland House: A History of London’s Most Celebrated Salon Linda Kelly tells the story of the Hollands and their many nightly dinner guests who sometimes included Lord Byron and even the Prince of Wales.

Kelly writes “The dinner book [at Holland House], kept by Allen [family doctor who lived with the Hollands], sometimes recorded as many as 50 guests. “

She also writes about the many trips the Hollands took that often included an entourage of servants and a cook.

It was on one of their trips that Lady Holland first saw the dahlia.

Between 1800 and 1805 Lord and Lady Holland lived in France, and also in Spain, where Lady Holland spotted the new flower called ‘dahlia’ that had reached Spain from Mexico about fifteen years earlier.

Lady Holland sent some seeds home to England in 1804 and it is on the strength of that shipment that she is given credit for the introduction of the dahlia into England.

From these came nearly all the dahlias grown in gardens in those early years.

Kelly writes “Lady Holland took great pleasure in the gardens at Holland House…In summer its borders were bright with dahlias.”

Her husband celebrated Lady Holland in this poem he wrote for her:

“The Dahlia you brought to our isle

Your praises forever should speak:

Mid gardens as sweet as your smile,

And in colour as bright as your cheek.”



Dahlias Still Enchant Gardeners

Dahlias still enchant gardeners.

I love dahlias. What can I say?

But then gardeners have loved this plant since it was first introduced from Mexico into Europe in the eighteenth century.

We treasured them so much that both in England and in America the early nineteenth century witnessed a ‘dahlia mania.’  Gardeners coveted the newest dahlia.

Head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) wrote a book called A practical treatise on the cultivation of the dahlia (1838).

In the book Paxton said “The state of perfection to which [the dahlia] has already attained is absolutely unparalleled in the history of any other plant or tribe of plants at present known to our collections; and perhaps I shall not be guilty of a departure from truth when I say, that it is at present by far the most interesting, beautiful and popular autumnal-flowering plant, of which the gardens of this country can boast.

“It is conjectured, that the number of named sorts of varieties of this plant now in cultivation, exceeds one thousand.” It was the 1830s and already gardeners could choose from one thousand varieties of the dahlia.

Dahlias continue to enchant gardeners to this day.

Recently I received a notice from Longfield Gardens about its offer for a selection of ‘border’ dahlias. That is a terrific idea. 

Why not plant dahlias as a border?

Border dahlia called ‘Gloria Pablo’ [Courtesy Longfield Gardens]

Dahlias are a terrific flower for containers, beds, as well as borders.

Paxton wrote “No plant, or tribe of plants, of the most acknowledged beauty, or the most extensive variety of form and colour, has ever excited so much interest and attention, or been so successfully and universally cultivated by British florists and horticulturists, as the one here noticed.”

English horticulturist Neil Kingsbury said in his new book Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden that today there are fifty-seven thousand varieties of dahlias on the market.

Surely that number is more than enough for that dahlia enchantment so many of us feel.