Delicious dahlias delight the senses
PUBLISHED: 16:04 02 August 2016 | UPDATED: 16:04 02 August 2016
If you want to grow something edible in the garden, but also provide an impressive floral display, consider growing dahlias, suggests Simon Akeroyd
Dahlias are usually associated with an exuberant floral summer display in the herbaceous or cut flower border, with showy flower heads lasting from mid-summer until the first autumnal frosts. However, for some gardeners dahlias also deserve a place in the kitchen garden, as their underground tubers can be cooked and eaten in much the same way as the humble spud.
In fact they taste yum, or should I say yam as this is one of the common names given to this gourmet delight. To be fair, there are mixed opinions as to the culinary virtues of cooking dahlia tubers ranging from ‘unpalatable’ to ‘delicious’, but this is probably due to the huge range of varieties available, and the fact that they have been bred for their flowering qualities as opposed to their use in the kitchen. Dahlias can be used as a substitute for most potato recipes, and can be boiled, baked, roasted or even made into chips and crisps. In fact, if you live in an area susceptible to the dreaded potato blight, then this could be a useful alternative.
Dahlias originate from Mexico with their edible tubers being a popular staple diet of the Aztecs. They were originally introduced to the West as a culinary crop by a Swedish botanist called Anders Dahl (hence the name dahlia) in the 18th century. It was thought it could even supersede the potato, which had been introduced a century or so earlier, possibly by Sir Walter Raleigh. However, this didn’t happen, but instead the dahlia developed as one of the nation’s favourite flowers with thousands of different varieties including the bizarrely-named categories of flower heads such as cactus, semi-cactus, pompom , single, decorative, collarette, show, anemone and peony. In a way, dahlias have had the reverse fortunes to both runner beans and tomatoes which were introduced to this country as ornamental plants, and of course are now two of our most popular culinary crops.
How to grow dahlias
We’re very lucky at Greenway gardens as the weather is so mild the tubers can be kept in the ground all-year-round. In fact they continue to pack a colourful punch in the garden right up until after Christmas.
In cooler climates where there is a risk of frost killing the tubers, plants should be gently lifted out of the ground in mid-autumn when the foliage starts to die back and blacken. Stems should be cut back to a few centimetres above the tuber. Hang the plants upside down for a few days to remove any excess moisture that can cause the plants to rot. Then place them in trays of sand with just their crowns above the surface. Store them in a dry, cool place such as a cellar, garage or shed. Once the risk of frost is over they can be planted outdoors again. If you don’t want to go to the effort of lifting tubers each year, then you can try planting them a few centimetres deeper than usual, and covering them with a thick layer of mulch in late autumn.
After planting dahlias, they should be kept well-watered. They’ll also need staking with bamboo and string to ensure the huge flower heads don’t snap under their weight. Regularly deadheading the plants will guarantee they continue to flower throughout the season.
If you intend to cook the tubers, they should be harvested in autumn by gently digging the plant up with a fork taking care not to damage the tubers. Don’t remove all the tubers for cooking, but instead just harvest the plumpest, saving about two-thirds of the remainder to be planted back in the ground in spring to produce another crop the following year. So, whether you want to grow dahlias in the garden for their ornamental qualities or their versatile, culinary flavours, it is always worth giving over some space in the garden to this impressive group of plants.
Avoid eating dahlia tubers bought directly from garden centres or online, as they may have been treated with insecticides and other chemicals. Instead grow them in the garden for at least a year.
Devonshire dahlia dish
Dahlias are very starchy, like potatoes, but slightly more watery. Flavour and consistency varies enormously according to variety, so it’s worth experimenting. Their tubers can be cooked as an alternative in dishes to potatoes or sweet potato.
1) Harvest about 12 plump dahlia tubers from the garden in mid-autumn
2) Scrub off the dirt and then peel as you would a potato
3) Grate or finely dice the dahlia tubers into a bowl. Squeeze them in a dishcloth to remove excess moisture
4) Finely chop an onion or shallot and mix it with the grated dahlia tuber. For a milder flavour use spring onions
5) Add two eggs and 6 tbps of flour to the dahlia and onion mixture and stir well
6) Mould the mixture with your hands into small oval cakes about 12mm thick and 8cm wide
7) Fry in olive oil until lightly brown. Serve with rashers of good Devonshire sweet cure bacon, apple purée made with a slightly sharp Devon Apple such as Tom Putt. A dollop of Devon clotted cream contrasts nicely with the salty bacon. If you want to jazz it up a bit you can always add chilli flakes to the cake mixture to suit personal taste.
Simon Akeroyd is gardens manager for the National Trust, working for the English Riviera portfolio. Gardens include Agatha Christie’s Greenway, Coleton Fishacre, Compton Castle and Bradley Manor . Simon has written a book called RHS Vegetables for Gourmet Gardeners featuring a range of usual and quirky vegetables worth trying out in both the garden and the kitchen. simonakeroyd.co.uk