In British summertime, gardens across the country provide a beautiful illustration of how social class permeates even the choice of flower that people will grow if they have the chance or inclination.
Around the start of July, you will start to see some outrageous colours as dahlias begin to bloom. Dahlias are originally from Mexico, they can be found as far south as far as northern Colombia. A plant of the Aztecs, a scream of psychedelia. First brought to Europe in the 1790s, they were inevitably given a colonial name: after Anders Dahl, one of Linnaeus’s pupils. Dahlias have no scent and rely on colour to attract pollinators and have evolved a startling colour range: every part of the rainbow except blue.
Their vivid exoticism did not fit with the ruling elite’s sensibility of the picturesque: the artfully constructed pastoral.
Dahlias were imported to Britain in the 1830s and here the class shibboleth took hold. Their vivid exoticism did not fit with the ruling elite’s sensibility of the picturesque: the artfully constructed pastoral. But, for the middle classes and working classes they were just the ticket. Easy to grow from tubers which you can lift and store over winter; so long as you protect them from frost and slugs, you can be guaranteed a riot of colour. A useful analogy would have them as the crack cocaine of horticulture.
Dahlias have a rare structure: they have eight homologous chromosomes rather than two and this makes them really susceptible to selective breeding. Working class cultivators banded together in Dahlia societies to share breeding tips and devise bigger blooms with stranger colours and patterns: the quest still goes on to produce a scented or blue variety.
Dahlias and their association with the working class have been an object of ridicule in hegemonic culture since the nineteenth century. Children might safely be called Rose, Violet or Lily but never Dahlia. The only exception was Wodehouse’s creation: the monstrous Aunt Dahlia in the Jeeves stories.
The divide continues. The ‘stately’ home of the elite will, occasionally, have a group of dahlias if they have a big border to fill; yet, they remain a working class flower.
Perhaps when the Labour Party were casting around for a logo, they should have embraced internationalism and their working class tubers and chosen the dahlia rather than the trite and obvious red rose.
The pictures show two of this year’s cultivar dahlias. Being torn between radicalism and baby boomer hedonism, I grow them in pots on the patio.