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The Dahlia

Gardening is the art that uses flowers and plants as paint, and the soil and sky as canvas.
~ Elizabeth Murray


  The story of any flower in remote antiquity can sometimes be reconstructed by the obviously primitive bits of magic and myth. That is true as far as Europe is concerned but concerning the Dahlia, it did not originate in Europe. It came from Mexico and was well known by the Aztecs. An Aztec herbal written in Latin just sixty years after the coming of Columbus was brought to light in 1929. An advanced type of culture had existed  in Mexico, but its wealth of of written records were destroyed in the interest of bringing Christianity to the heathen. So the discovery of an Aztec Herbal was a piece of incredible luck for the students of the history of Medicine and also for botanists. Out of the remote Mexican we find that the Aztecs used dahlias as a treatment for epilepsy.

The dahlia was late in coming to Europe. By the time it arrived the "curious " men of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were long gone and scientific specialists had taken over. They looked at the dahlia as a possible source of food because a disease in the early 1840`s had destroyed the French potato crop. However after tasting the dahlia they gave up on that idea and decided just to grow it for its beauty.

Modern specialists turned to the dahlia for medical reasons and this time it was not in vain. In the days before insulin was discovered diabetics were often given a substance called Atlantic starch or diabetic sugar made from dahlia tubers. The medicine they yield is no longer fed to diabetics, but it is useful in making clinical tests for the functioning of the liver while inulin, another chemical derived from dahlia tubers, is used in the same way to test the kidneys.

There is also a sweet story from the eighteenth century concerning love and dahlias.

Sir Godfrey Webster was living in Florence with his wife when young Lord Holland came to town. Lady Webster took off with Lord Holland and in 1796 their first son was born. A year later old Sir Godfrey divorced her and she and Lord Holland were able to marry. The love affair between the lad of twenty and the girl of twenty-three blossomed into a long and happy marriage. And after they had been together some twenty years he wrote for her a little poem.

Between 1800 and 1805 the Hollands lived in France and in Spain where Lady Holland first saw dahlias that had reached Spain about 15 years before. She sent some home and it is on the strength of that shipment that she is given credit for the introduction of the dahlia into England.

The Dahlia is the official flower of San Francisco.

Here is the poem he wrote for her:
The Dahlia you brought to our isle
Your praises for ever shall speak:
Mid gardens as sweet as your smile,
And colour as bright as your cheek.



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