This September’s RHS Wisley Flower Show was spectacular in itself, with numerous Chelsea Gold Medal Winners amongst the trade stands and the most wonderful arrays of plants in peak condition.
The only downside was the traffic overflow, which meant one took 20 minutes driving far slower than a man could walk to reach any car park and this then necessitated quite a trek to get to the Show itself.
It was still very worthwhile; despite the crowding nearly everyone seemed happy. Flowers of that standard just seem to do the trick.
The occasion also provided the setting for the National Dahlia Society’s Annual Show which took place in a large marquee, packed with blooms in what might be called “every imaginable Technicolor hue”. The Society was founded in 1881 and has remained steadfastly true to its values. As its website says “for over a century (it) has given unbroken service to gardeners interested in this wonderful flower.” Its Roll of Honour Gold and Silver medals are touchingly awarded simply for “services to the dahlia”. Fashion has passed it by. When gardeners convinced of their own good taste once loved to mock and scorn the dahlia as “vulgar, vulgar, vulgar!” the Society ignored them as a load of rather silly people who wouldn’t know a good thing if they saw it. Now dahlias are a part of so many superb and highly creative gardens, the Society continues as before, albeit very pleased at the good sense others are at last showing. It quite properly remains essentially unmoved in its own certainty as to what constitutes a good plant.
It holds two major shows each year, the one at Wisley and the other at Harrogate; both in September when the majority of blooms will be at their best. Those exhibits inside the Wisley tent were every inch show dahlias, with a limited number of stems and flowers in each vase and every one in perfect condition and conforming as nearly as possible to the judges’ guidelines. This presentation, like those at most single-plant societies’ shows, is of course very different from the way most of us use dahlias in our gardens. I, and I think many other gardeners nowadays, choose to use them as part of mixed plantings, treating them as an element of the overall effect in the same way as one might squeeze out some oil paint onto a palette. That said they are glorious when used in a top class cutting garden such as the one we mentioned at West Dean.
One imagines, despite the constant introduction of new varieties, that little has fundamentally changed in the world of show dahlias. But this hardly matters, what counts is the incredible warmth of atmosphere, pride in achievement and the friendship and camaraderie amongst the exhibitors and judges. They had come from all over the UK, including some from Northern Ireland and were very open to engaging in conversation with any visitor who wanted to talk. I have seldom met a happier group of people. They are clearly not in it for the money; even a major prize would only buy a few litres of petrol. Somehow they reminded me of one of the most laudable aims of the Declaration of Independence: “the Pursuit of Happiness” and to look around you might well believe they had achieved it.
We should remember what a debt we owe to these stalwart groups of people, who have preserved and enhanced the flowers we so happily and relatively carelessly use like paint. If you go to the next autumn flower show, take a look at the dahlias. They’re worth it.