It’s showier than its botanical cousin, the zinnia, and even hardier than its seasonal peer, the sturdy chrysanthemum: the dahlia takes the prize for beauty and variety when it comes to late summer/early fall flowers. And accordingly, showing the robust flower is quite a competitive endeavor. “There are strict judging rules that all US and Canadian exhibitors must follow [for] color, form, substance, stem, foliage, bloom position, uniformity and distinctiveness,” says local horticulturalist Brian Killingsworth, who’s been growing dahlias since 1968.
Killingsworth notes that the blooms originated in the mountains of Guatemala and Mexico. In the wild, dahlias grow on 20-foot-tall trees with “pendulous branches,” he says. The three native colors are red, mauve, and white; all cultivated dahlias are descended from these originals and can come in many combinations of white, yellow, orange, pink, red, and lavender.
Blooms range in style from tight pom-poms to spidery “cactus” heads to centerpiece Dinner Plate dahlias up to 9 inches wide, and Killingsworth has good information about their special growing needs (even though temperate Western North Carolina is an ideal climate for dahlias, these flowers don’t like any weather that’s too hot, too cold, or too wet — so timing and careful cultivation are important). The week of the fall equinox, the expert grower will lead a three-day tour of the dahlia spread at Hendersonville’s Bullington Gardens — an après event to the American Dahlia Society’s prestigious 50th annual show, hosted by the Carolinas Dahlia Society in Asheville September 15-19.
Killingsworth has been attending regional dahlia events since 1992, and sounds excited about the plant’s September takeover of WNC. His own event will be on the casual side — but when it comes down to bloom-against-bloom during show time, he styles the climate as “serious/fun.”
Tours of the dahlia garden at Bullington Gardens (95 Upper Red Oak Trail, Hendersonville) happen September 20-22 at 10am and 2pm. Free. Call (828) 698-6104 to make a reservation or visit bullingtongardens.org for more information.