Edible Dahlia Bulbs

Dahlia bulbs have a surprising variety of flavors, and their big, beautiful blooms brighten gardens.


| August/September 2009



dahlia flower

The ornamental value of dahlia flowers has long been recognized, but their edible tubers also make them an excellent addition to kitchen gardens.


ROB CARDILLO

Among the most beautiful of flowers, dahlias are also edible! Most people don’t realize that dahlias are a close New World relative of both sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. In addition to the petals, you also can eat dahlia bulbs. Although not all are tasty (some are quite bland), they have a range of flavors and textures that is hard to quantify: There are those with crunchy textures akin to water chestnuts or yacon (read Yummy Yacon for more information), and those with flavors ranging from spicy apple to celery root or even carrot. A lot depends on the variety and the soil in which the variety grew. Heirlooms such as ‘Yellow Gem,’ introduced in 1914, are much more flavorful than the modern hybrids bred for huge, fluffy flower heads.

Dahlias have been lurking on the sidelines of my kitchen garden for a long time. I don’t recall exactly when I started to grow them, but I had always thought of dahlias as showy vegetable companions rather than ornamentals because my grandfather had intermingled them among his own vegetables many years ago. Memories of that remarkably beautiful mixture of flowers and blue-ribbon vegetables have stayed with me ever since. Based on those child hood recollections, I just assumed that interplanting with dahlias was a normal thing to do. Plus, honeybees adore dahlias, so if you want to attract those important pollinators to your garden, you really can’t find a splashier choice.

The culinary properties of dahlias were well-known to the indigenous peoples of mountainous southern Mexico, where the flower originated. But the tubers were small and knotty by today’s standards, and the flowers weren’t much to look at. In some cases, such as that of the tree dahlia (Dahlia imperialis), these plants could reach up to 20 feet in height. That wild, treelike species was called acocotli by the Aztecs, meaning “water cane.” They valued the plant especially as a source of water for traveling hunters. Even to this day, dahlias will store large reserves of water in their stems — one reason they succumb so quickly to hard frosts.

Seeds for dahlias were sent to Spain in 1789 for the three basic species then known: D. atropurpurea, D. pinnata and the aforementioned D. imperialis. The early breeders of dahlias in Europe were primarily interested in developing the plant as a food source (especially the tubers), but those experiments never met with much success. When double forms of the flower began to emerge in the early 1800s, interest shifted entirely to the flower and breeding what is known today as the pompon (ball- or globe-shaped) dahlia.

There was a great deal of competition to produce the most beautiful flowers, and by the 1840s, several lavishly illustrated books on dahlias added to the general craze for the novelty. The introduction of brilliant red D. juarezii in 1872, sent to Holland from Mexico, led to another breeding frenzy, and all the dahlia hybrids that we know today descended from the crosses made with this variety in the 1870s. In spite of that, only about five original hybrids survive from the 1800s: ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’ (1893), ‘Nellie Broomhead’ (1897), ‘Tommy Keith’ (1892), ‘Union Jack’ (1882), and ‘White Aster’ (1879). All the other thousands of dahlias shown in garden books of the period are now extinct. This is where I decided to step into the picture.

Several years ago, I offered an “edible tuber” dahlia through Seed Savers Exchange. The fact that you could eat the yam-size tubers intrigued me. It made me wonder why other dahlia tubers couldn’t be eaten as well. It turns out I was only relearning what the native peoples of southern Mexico had known for centuries.

bill mccaskill_2
9/12/2009 8:05:28 PM

Much of the literature says that dahlia flowers and tuber are poisonous. I would not eat them if I were you. Bill


aaron ridling
8/2/2009 4:23:24 PM

I just wanted to warn people to be careful when they eat dahlia tubers as the tubers may store some of the chemicals you may have dumped in your garden, even if you have sprayed them on the leaves. I am a dahlia grower and hybridizer, and I have not tried eating a dahlia tuber yet. If I wanted to, I would have to grow dahlia in an area where it is not going to get any fertilizer or any systemic insecticides. I have a fertilizer injector that puts a trace amount of fertilizer every time I water. The only time that I would spray is when the insects are getting really bad. At the same time that I spray, I usually add some fertilizer to the solution as plants absorb the fertilizer. So, my final line is, if you put any kind of chemicals in your gardens, your dahlias will store them in the tuber, after all... a tuber is just a storage root. go figure.


aaron ridling
8/2/2009 4:02:41 PM

I just wanted to warn people to be careful when they eat dahlia tubers as the tubers may store some of the chemicals you may have dumped in your garden, even if you have sprayed them on the leaves. I am a dahlia grower and hybridizer, and I have not tried eating a dahlia tuber yet. If I wanted to, I would have to grow dahlia in an area where it is not going to get any fertilizer or any systemic insecticides. I have a fertilizer injector that puts a trace amount of fertilizer every time I water. The only time that I would spray is when the insects are getting really bad. At the same time that I spray, I usually add some fertilizer to the solution as plants absorb the fertilizer. So, my final line is, if you put any kind of chemicals in your gardens, your dahlias will store them in the tuber, after all... a tuber is just a storage root. go figure.






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