By Ramona Krucker, Gardener
at Marin Art and Garden Center
To celebrate Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month, we want to turn a spotlight on the tree dahlia, which like the ancestors of common garden dahlias originated in the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala. In fact, the dahlia was declared Mexico’s national flower in 1963 by President Adolfo Lopéz Mateo to promote the the Floricultura Nacional exposition; thereafter, large plantings of dahlias in parks and along the famous Avenida Reforma appeared.
The tree dahlia (Dahlia imperialis) is set apart from other dahlia species by its height of up to twenty feet and its hollow bamboo-like stems. It is believed that the Aztecs used the stems for transporting water and as a source of potable water for hunters and travelers. Their name for the tree dahlia was acocotil, meaning water-cane. To this day, the tree dahlia’s leaves are used as a dietary supplement by the K’ekchi people of San Pedro Carchá in the mountains of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.
If you’ve never seen a tree dahlia, you’re in luck! There are two specimens growing at Marin Art and Garden Center. One was planted by our gardener Patty earlier this year and we’re keeping our fingers crossed for a bloom in November. The other one is situated by the Habitat Pond and is larger in size. Other specimens of Dahlia imperialis, collected in the wild in Guatemala, can be seen at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, where they usually bloom from November through January.
If you are interested in ways to enjoy dahlias other than for their ornamental qualities, check out this article by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. It includes information on the origins of wild dahlia species in central Mexico and ideas for how the petals and tubers can be eaten raw and cooked.