Drama queen: How the dahlia became fashion's favourite flower

Dress, £129, Finery London
Dress, £129, Finery London

If dahlias had been prevalent in 1794, who knows what obscure fate might have befallen Robert Burns, “My love is like a variegated dahlia” being significantly trickier to scan than the more familiar red, red rose.

The slightly florid name is only one of the dahlia’s problems. It is the Salma Hayek of flowers, a native Mexican who has unfairly encountered problems being taken  seriously. First introduced to Europe in 1789, it has spent at least half its time here being derided as a gaudy emblem of naffness – the anti-Christ of the muted Sissinghurst-esque gardens that have charmed polite society for decades.

Dahlias at Burberry autumn/winter 2015 Credit: Isidore Montag

All that is changing. You cannot manoeuvre your way round a modish dinner party, bedside table or autumn collection without fear of knocking over a vase of 'Arabian Nights’ or 'Collarettes’. Last weekend, its petals were scattered across Port Eliot, where festival-goers learnt to make dahlia crowns at a workshop run by The Flower Appreciation Society (TFAS), a London-based florist. Tonight, the dahlia takes another step towards fashion rehabilitation at the Wilderness Festival, where Laurent-Perrier party will explode with dahlias, courtesy, again, of TFAS.

“We are so backing dahlias,” says Ellie Jauncey, one half of TFAS and co-author of The Flower Appreciation Society: An A to Z of All Things Floral (£20, Little Brown). “They have the most perfect symmetry and come in an insane number of shapes, from pom-poms to Tudor ruffs.”

Christopher Kane pre-fall 2015

Jauncey buys her British dahlias from the singly named Richie, at Covent Garden Flower Market. “They’re so popular that if you haven’t put your order in a week before, forget it.”

Here we run into the malaise of our time. Their increasingly frequent appearances on Instagram (Sam McKnight, the hairdresser and keen amateur gardener is a huge dahlia fan), mean we could reach peak dahlia almost before we’ve fully familiarised ourselves with its 35 glorious separate species, according to the National Dahlia Society.

Furnishing fabrics have been dahlia-rampant for some time. Now fashion designers such as Simone Rocha, Marni and Christopher Kane (who discovered the impact of a single dahlia when he placed them to holographic effect on his pouches) are cottoning on to what Jauncey calls the dahlia’s “modern geometry”.

Nicola Shulman, writer and proud president of the Whitby Chrysanthemum Society, notes that between the end of the 19th century, when they were last fashionable, and now, dahlias remained stalwarts of horticultural competitions, “bred mainly by nerdy men who didn’t give a jot about what was fashionable but just wanted to cultivate amazing flowers”.

Sam McKnight's Instagram dahlias

This obsession with technical perfection is what Nancy Mitford mocked when she described Sir Leicester Kroesig’s garden in The Pursuit of Love as a “a riot of sterility… each individual bloom appearing twice as large, three times as brilliant as it ought to have been and, if possible, of a different colour from that which nature intended.”

While she doesn’t specifically name-check the dahlia, it was consigned to the non-U end of the herbaceous border – a shame, because bees adore it.

Simone Rocha autumn/winter 2015 Credit: Isidore Montag

So began the years of exile – sidelined, along with carnations and chrysanthemums, into cellophane-wrapped bouquets on garage forecourts. Shulman credits Skye Gyngell, the owner of the Spring restaurant in London, with its rebirth.

“A few years ago, I noticed a vase of dahlias on the table at Petersham Nurseries (the site of Gyngell’s first restaurant). Literally, until that moment people would see dahlias and go, 'Argggh’.”

As in clothes and houses, so in gardens – tastes change. Shulman, who is particularly in awe of the cream-fringed purple 'Edinburgh’ dahlia, observes that dahlia snobbery is a generational tic.

Marni bag, £1070, Matches Fashion

“The dahlia represented everything we were taught not to love about gardens – artificial-looking and faintly ridiculous. There were class connotations, too – it was the flower of allotments.”

Now allotments are madly fashionable, and a career in floristry is to middle-class girls what PR was a generation ago.

The dahlia’s intricate shapes and firework hues – the traits that bounced it out of fashion – make it resonate with contemporary designers again.

It is also a late bloomer, bringing colour and texture to gardens throughout September.

“It’s wonderful in clumps,” says florist Flora Starkey. “Varieties such as the 'Cafe au Lait’, 'Ice Cube’ and 'Shiloh Noelle’ have lovely, soft shades and are brilliant as a focus in arrangements, taking over from peonies and roses.”

Flowerbx, the latest fashionable florist, is also obsessed, offering single-bloom bouquets of dahlias (and chrysanthemums – how long before they are acceptable again?).

Better still are the dahlia’s macabre associations. Black Dahlia was the nickname given to the mutilated body of a young woman in a grisly, unsolved murder case that gripped the public in 1947, subsequently turned into a thriller by Elmore Leonard, a film starring Scarlett Johansson, and a Givenchy perfume.

Resistance is ebbing. “Whenever we suggest dahlias for a wedding bouquet,” says Jauncey, “the mother of the bride practically passes out. But the brides are always up for it.”

One last feature in its favour: the dahlia is demanding – the bulbs need to be replaced each year. You know how fashion loves a prima donna.