Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener 21: 294 (October 2, 1890)

Shirley Hibberd

The opening paper at the Dahlia Conference at Chiswick on Tuesday was by Mr. Shirley Hibberd, the subject being "The Origin of the Florists' Dahlia." Instead of reading in the customary manner from written or printed copy, Mr. Hibberd entered upon a free extemporaneous discourse; and with the aid of a series of drawings was enabled to interest his auditors in a subject that appears not to offer many points of general interest.

He divided his subject into two parts, the historical and the biological. The earliest description of the Dahlia extant is in the "Treatise on the Animals and Plants of New Spain," by Francisco Hernandez, published at Madrid in 1615. From this time there was no more heard of the flower for 150 years. It was again heard of in 1787, when Nicholas de Menonville was sent from France to Mexico to obtain, by any means, the cochineal insect and the plant on which it fed. This explorer reported having seen in the gardens great Asters on stems 6 feet high with leaves like those of the Elder tree, and this augmented the desire in Europe for the possession of the floral wonder. The desire was gratified in 1789, when a parcel of seeds was sent from Mexico city by Vincent Cervantez, to be grown by the Abbé Cavanilles, in the Botanic Garden at Madrid. Of these England secured a share through Lord Bute, who was at that time in Madrid, and secured a few, which he sent home to Lady Bute, who grew them in her greenhouse, so that in the year 1790 the living flowers of the Dahlia were actually seen in this country. But the nature of the plant being misunderstood, it was soon lost to cultivation; it was, in fact, killed by kindness, for the pet idea of that time was that all exotic plants required a high temperature and a stifling atmosphere.

The year that followed was the first in the proper history of the plant, for then Cavanilles, in his Icones, gave it a name as Dahlia coccinea, the generic name being a compliment to Andreas Dahl, author of a treatise on the Linnaean system of botany. This name was subsequently set aside by Professor Willdenow in favour of Georgina, in compliment to Professor Georgi of St. Petersburgh; but in 1832 the original name was restored on the sole ground of priority, and from that time has been generally used.

The formation of the florists' Dahlia began in the year 1813, when Donkelaar, at the Botanical Gardens at Louvain, obtained a series of double flowers, which were freely distributed. But from about the year 1800 the French had been assiduously cultivating it, though but little was heard of their operations in this way, owing to the influence of politics in every department of public intelligence. But the advancement of the flower in French gardens was revealed when the Allies entered Paris in 1814, for the English amateurs found single and double varieties in profusion, and it seems that the credit for all this was due to Donkelaar, who had first persuaded the plant to display its variability, and had freely distributed his improved varieties. Thus the Dahlia came in with the French Revolution, and it attained to the dignity of a florists' flower concurrently with the downfall of Napoleon, who was the "child" of that revolution.

Turning to the biological history, the figures of Dahlia coccinea ("Botanical Magazine," t. 762) and of Dahlia variabilis ("B. M.," t. 1885) were contrasted with the flowers in the Exhibition to show that although the several forms of Dahlias were known eighty years ago, the interval had been one of continual progression, the earliest doubles being so unlike those of the present day that one might say that their relationship was botanical rather than floral. The progress of the flower in all the qualities that are valued and sought by the florists was continuous until about the year 1850, the golden time being from 1830 onwards, when the prices of the new varieties ranged from 20s. to 30s., and the Dahlia supported publications of its own, one of its ablest advocates being the "Dahlia Register." In those golden days the principal trade cultivators were Wheeler of Warminster, Brown of Slough, Heale of Calne, and Glenny of Isleworth. In one of his advertisements in the year 1836 Mr. Glenny announced that the selection he had made represented the best amongst 3000 seedlings. For some time after this date Mr. Cbarles Turner of Slough, and Mr. George Rawlings of Bethnal Green advertised their new varieties at 15s. each, but after 1850 there was a visible decline in the popularity of the flower. The years 1860 to 1870 was a dark time in the history of the Dahlia, but in 1870 the National Dahlia Society commenced operations, and accomplished a genuine revival, and this was the more gratifying as it was on the broad basis of recognising the single and the Cactus varieties that were then coming into favour, the first Cactus variety, Juarezi, of recent times being shown by Mr. H. Cannell in 1872. Previous to this, however, the Cactus group has been prefigured in Brown's "Glow-worm," 1836, a portrait of which Mr. Hibberd presented to the meeting.

The Dahlia was described as the most variable flower known, and a detailed account was given of the changes that take place in the development of the single to the double flower. The dissection of the flower revealed the differences between the florets of the ray and the florets of the disk, not only as to outward form, but as to their relation with the sexual systems, one direct tendency of the doubling process being to sterilise the flower. Some very interesting particulars were given on the seeding of show Dahlias and of the limits of variation in this variable flower. Of the extent of its variability Mr. Hibberd was enabled to discourse the more freely when he announced his belief that all our Dahlias, save and except the South American Dahlia imperialis, are representatives of one species. Thus he fuses frustranea with superflua, and even glabrata he regards a miniature form of variabilis, which name for strictly technical purposes he considers should represent the one species of which the other reputed species are but geographical forms. His reasons for those views would occupy more space than we can afford for them, but as the full text of the discourse will appear in the Society's journal, those who are curious on this part of the subject have but to wait for the publication to satisfy their curiosity.

Floricultural Cabinet, p. 312 (November 1858)

THE FIRST DOUBLE DAHLIAS.—Figures of a single and double Dahlia have been found in an old work on the natural history of Mexico, published at Rome in 1651. In this work there is a very correct figure of a double Dahlia, under the name of Cocoxochitl, with violet-colourcd ray florets, and a very conspicuous yellow disk. It is thus clear that double Dahlias, so far from being the result of European culture, were common in Mexico, before the plant was introduced into Europe.