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Dahlias are favorites of brides, gardeners

Dahlias are big. In size and in popularity.

The flower you might associate with your grandmother’s garden can push out blooms as big around as a dinner plate.

Both potted plants and tubers are flying off the shelves in catalog houses and garden centers. And brides love them for their variety in color and shape.

“There is something lush about them,” said Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Mich. His catalog, which specializes in heirlooms, sold out of dahlias quickly this spring. “There is this profusion of petals and they have substance. The colors tend to be rich. It makes them hold up well in a bouquet. They will look great, morning to night.”

When he first started his mail-order business, he offered just fall-planting varieties. When he expanded to include spring-planted bulbs, the dahlias became the most popular.

“They really want to work for you,” he said. “For $5, you get a hundred flowers.”

Dahlias are native to Mexico. They were brought into gardens by the Aztecs who first used the sweet potato-like tubers as a food crop. Dahlias made it to Europe in the late 1700s, and by the mid-1800s, the exploding number of varieties was getting the attention of garden writers, and the dahlia became one of the most popular garden plants in this country. They are related to daisies and zinnias, and can resemble both.

Perhaps the most pleasing thing about dahlias – second only to their variety – is how robustly they continue to bloom until first frost, while other cutting flowers seem to lose heart in late summer.

“There are sporadic blooms all summer,” said Becky Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs of Virginia. “Then you have lush blooms all fall. Dahlias are a two-season bloomer.”

Eddie Wingrat, owner of Baltimore’s Flowers and Fancies, which has been creating bridal bouquets for almost 50 years, credits Pinterest with the popularity of dahlias among brides. The photo-sharing application introduced a new generation to the variety and beauty of dahlias.

“It is what brides are seeing, and we’re taking our lead from them,” he said. “Pinterest gives people a visual they never had before, and you can see the beauty and textures and colors.”

In addition, Wingrat said, brides currently favor a more casual, country-style wedding, and dahlias fit the bill. “It is a gardening flower, casual in its look but easy to combine with other flowers. It’s what the girls want right now. Its textures and colors are so rich.”

Anyone who wants an instant garden that requires little maintenance might be put off by the dahlia. The tubers can’t go into the ground until it has warmed up. They won’t be blooming on Mother’s Day. They can be so large they require staking or netting. And to guarantee a second season, they must be dug up in the fall, coated with cinnamon to prevent disease, and stored in vermiculite or Styrofoam peanuts in a cool spot.

Kunst of Old House Gardens says gardeners in Maryland can take the chance the bulbs will survive the winter in the ground. And if they don’t, what’s $5?

“Treat them like an annual and get some different ones next year,” he said.

Some gardeners like the instant gratification of dahlias already in bloom, said Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, Md. And they were gone almost immediately.

“We grew a lot this year and basically we sold out,” she said. “They were flying out of here.” Engel said more dahlias are on their way to the store.

She said customers are attracted to the extravagant colors of the flowers. But many dahlia varieties also have a deep purple or chocolate colored foliage that can be eye-catching in the garden even before blooms appear.

But it is the stunning range of shapes and sizes among dahlias that can excite the gardener or the bride. From tiny pompoms to heavy-headed dinner plates. Ones that resemble a strange daisy, ones that resemble sea anemones and ones that look like fireworks in the sky.

Which does Wingrat like the best?

“All of them,” he said. “All of them.”