It’s a golden January evening, and Waihi Dahlia Club president Jennifer Chappel is armed with secateurs, selecting the most perfect specimens for the first show of the summer circuit. Conditions are not ideal. A storm earlier in the week damaged some of the plants before Chappel went out into the wind to protect them with netting. Many of the flowers have peaked too soon, ripening weeks before any of the competitions. “I blame Peter’s cow shit,” she says. Her friend and rival Peter Burrell from Te Puke, 84 years old, gave her a load of manure—“we met in Katikati and he handed it over”—and Chappel suspects it may have been too much of a good thing.
She weaves among the crowded rows. The plants are taller than she is, and some of the flowers are the size of her head. Chappel snips off a gorgeous pink confection, gives it a cursory glance, and throws it disdainfully to the ground. “It’s blown,” she explains. That means the dahlia is a fraction too mature. A few ruffled florets curl away from its centre, revealing the yellow disc beneath. It can even happen suddenly on the show bench, as the flower sits waiting to be judged, and is a disqualifiable offence, rendering the bloom’s beauty useless in this blood sport.
For, make no mistake, flower shows are a sport, one that attracts people with a love of competition as well as beauty. Chappel was a top equestrian from the age of 13, wallpapering her bedroom with prize ribbons. For 50 years, she was a regular at the Waihi netball courts, playing and coaching rep teams, until her health deteriorated two years ago. Now she’s 75, and dahlias are the remaining outlet for her competitive spirit. “My dream was always to get the Champion of Champions at the national show,” she says. “I’ve got them up on the champions table, but I haven’t got that big ribbon.”
Every weekend from late January to the middle of March, dahlia enthusiasts around the country get up early, clip their most promising blooms and meet in small halls to vie for glory. It’s a 200-year-old British tradition that has flourished in New Zealand since the 1930s. But while a new wave of cut-flower growers are making dahlias desirable among the Instagram generation, growing the perfect dahlia for the show bench is a dying art.
At the Waihi Memorial Hall early the next morning, the sun slides through a crack in the curtains, illuminating the wooden stage, plastic folding tables and a multicoloured sea of dahlias. The flowers take on the hues and forms of a coral reef—here a spiky, fluorescent sea urchin, there a ruffled nudibranch, a jewelled polyp, a tiny, plump seastar. In place of a reef’s bright fishes, a dozen human competitors are primping, trimming, shuffling and rearranging their best blooms in green plastic vases. Each of them hopes to claim victory in any of the 59 different categories, or the trophy for Champion Bloom, or Flower of the Year.
Waihi is a warm-up for the bigger shows later on, so this is the first chance for the exhibitors to suss each other out and show off any new varieties they’ve bred or imported. Despite the rivalry, there’s real affection. When Burrell arrives, Chappel greets him with a warm hug, her eyes shiny. The demographic of dahlia shows is such that competitors can never be sure if the stalwarts will still be around from one year to the next. “Is that my Fidalgo’s Snowman?” Chappel asks, pointing to a big white dahlia. Her Snowman died, but Burrell has kept the tubers alive. Dahlia plants produce tubers under the ground, which can be split off and shared during winter—the best way to ensure the survival of a cultivar, as a bad season could wipe it out forever.
Over on another table, Dave and Kay Shirley, who are in their 50s, are ripping sheets out of the Yellow Pages phone book and stuffing them into vases to prop their blooms up in the best position. They’re among the show’s youngest competitors. Dave’s other hobbies are competitive target shooting and antique cars, and when he got into exhibiting dahlias alongside Kay, around seven years ago, his then-teenaged sons weren’t too impressed. “But the funny thing is, they know all about them—I can pick them and one of the boys will go, ‘Dad, the centre’s going to blow tomorrow.’ I’ve caught them looking at them when they didn’t think I was watching.”
Dave sought out a champion grower as a mentor, and set about figuring out how to win—though that’s not the only joy. He finds the garden relaxing after a hard day at work, and the couple rave about the friendships they’ve forged travelling around the country for shows.
According to Chappel, the Shirleys are now the ones to beat. Today, she’s hoping to wrest the sought-after Class One prize from them. “That’s where the artistry comes in,” she says. “You want to get the colours tinting and toning.”
The aim in this class is to make a pleasing arrangement of flawless dahlias from any five of a multitude of classification groups. In the show world, dahlias are divided by size (giant, large, medium, small, miniature or micro) and form (decorative, ball, pompon, waterlily, collarette, cactus, semicactus and fimbriated cactus). The job of the judge is to assess how closely each bloom adheres to the standard—to choose which medium semicactus bloom best represents the ideal of a medium semicactus. Or so Waihi Dahlia Show chief judge Keith Hammett tells me.
He has just walked into the Memorial Hall dressed entirely in beige, sporting mutton-chop sideburns and a curled, waxed moustache. “You do realise this is a religion,” he says.
Hammett stalks along the rows of flowers. He places the competing blooms side by side on the floor so he can see them from all angles. To start with, they must be the correct size. If he has doubts, he measures them with a set of brass rings like a giant clutch of kitchen measuring spoons. A cultivar called Kotare Kate—a yellow medium fimbriated cactus—has to fit inside the medium-sized ring, while the sunset-coloured (and dubiously named) Kidd’s Climax—a giant decorative—must be bigger than the largest ring.
At first glance, all I notice is the dahlias’ colours. But Hammett has a connoisseur’s eye. “Well, that’s just riddled with flaws,” he says, scoring one 4/10. Flowers are marked down for being untidy, sun-bleached, blown, chewed, asymmetrical or insufficiently spherical. The centre, I learn, should be integrated with the rest of the bloom.
The flower should sit at a 45-degree angle to the stem so it looks the viewer in the eye, not gazing at the roof or straight ahead—a defect called “clock face”.
Hammett is struggling to choose a winner. “They’ve all got something wrong with them,” he says, exasperated. “It’s easier to judge quality against quality.” Then he checks himself. “It’s extraordinarily easy for me to be hyper-critical here. There’s a fine line between the standards of the purist and remembering it’s a recreational activity. It’s important not to be too sharky.”
Hammett began growing dahlias and competing in shows as a schoolboy in post-war London. When he moved to New Zealand in his 20s and began showing here, he brought the elevated standards of the old country with him. Back then, Chappel says, he was very strict, but “he’s really mellowed out over the years”.
A couple of other judges move along the benches with Hammett, appraising, critiquing and examining each entry closely, then sending the winners to the champions table in the centre of the room.
Eyeing the table, Peter Burrell’s wife, Val Burrell, remarks that dahlia trends have changed. “Once upon a time, the champions table was all white and yellow, especially in the South Island. It’s much more colourful now.”
In the end, the Shirleys beat Chappel in Class One. But the day’s big winner is Annabella Martin, who is wearing a blue polo shirt with Rotorua Dahlia Society embroidered on it. She was born in Fiji and came to New Zealand aged 11. One day, 20 years ago, she wandered into a dahlia show at Ngongotahā, and that was it. Soon she had accumulated 200 dahlias. Today, she has five vases on the champions table, and is taking home trophies for Champion Bloom and Champion Vase (a collection of three matching
Martin is quietly chuffed. She had been considering giving up showing because of trouble with “bloody earwigs”—but maybe she’ll keep going a little longer.
The Memorial Hall, the pile of pastel winners’ rosettes, the coleslaw at lunch—it’s all very British country show, but the dahlia’s story is a global one. The plant itself, the genus Dahlia, originates in the mountains of Mexico. Its range extends through the sierras to Central America, with up to 40 species occupying different microclimates and niches. Most are shades of purple (though one is yellow and red) and have simple forms, with just one layer of florets.
Each petal on a dahlia is actually a flower so, botanically speaking, a dahlia bloom is an “inflorescence”—a collection of flowers.
Contrary to popular belief, the dahlia probably wasn’t used in traditional medicine, eaten or revered by the Aztecs, nor was it Montezuma’s favourite flower, according to Martin Král, a collaborator of Hammett’s in the United States who reviewed the historical literature. The Aztecs probably had a few dahlias growing in their waterside gardens, he says, but there isn’t any evidence they used dahlias for ceremonial purposes as they did marigolds, zinnias and cosmos flowers.
Although the marigold was taken to Europe and North Africa in the 1500s, it wasn’t until 1789—the year of the French Revolution—that the first dahlia seeds or tubers were sent from Mexico City to the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid. There, botanist Antonio José Cavanilles was working his way through the wealth of material that had arrived from Spain’s New World territories. In 1791, he drew and scientifically described the dahlia, naming it after a scruffy, hairy Swedish botanist called Anders Dahl who had died two years before of pneumonia, aged 38. (Cavanilles probably never met Dahl, and Dahl certainly never met a dahlia, but honouring colleagues in this way was common at the time.) Over the following century, various botanical explorers—including the most famous scientist of the age, Alexander von Humboldt—collected different species of dahlia in Mexico.
Meanwhile, in the gardens of Europe, as botanists and breeders experimented with growing dahlias, the various species began to share genes and hybridise, leading to new colours and forms. The reason for the dahlia’s extraordinary variety lies in its genetics. Unlike most organisms, which have two copies of each chromosome, the cultivated dahlia has eight—allowing for a much higher level of genetic recombination during cell division. Breeders first produced a double dahlia in the early 1800s, meaning that instead of one simple layer of florets, it had two. Over the next 30 years, they added row after row, resulting in the elaborate, spherical shapes seen in today’s decorative and ball dahlias.
Live dahlias arrived in England in 1803. The first exhibition of dahlias was held in Scotland in 1818, and in 1841, John Keynes held a sellout one-man show of his own cultivars among the sarsens of Stonehenge. Dahlias made his fortune, which he passed down to his famous grandson, the British economist John Maynard Keynes.
In the 1830s and 40s, Czech nationalists disguised their political meetings as a dahlia club, which held annual dahlia balls.
In 1872, a Dutch breeder received a shipment of plant material from a friend in Mexico. Almost all of it was rotted and ruined, but the one surviving root turned out to be a very unusual bright red dahlia, with pointy rolled-up petals—the first cactus dahlia, whose descendants further expanded the dahlia gene pool.
But dahlia genetics have never extended to blue blooms. In 1846, the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society of Edinburgh offered a prize of £2000 for the first person to produce a blue dahlia. The prize remains unclaimed, though not for lack of trying.
A small number of plant breeders around the world are still pushing the limits of the dahlia’s genetic possibilities—and some of the most unusual and sought-after new forms are being developed right here in New Zealand.
When Keith Hammett is not judging dahlia shows, he’s trying to breed the impossible. His laboratory is his home garden in west Auckland, an oasis hidden from the encroaching suburbia of Westgate by trees he planted half a century ago. In the garage, his car boasts the numberplate DAHLIA, and in the garden, bumblebees and butterflies float over rainbow rows of dahlias.
The insects are an integral part of Hammett’s workforce: dahlias with desirable characteristics are set next to each other, so that the pollinators scramble their genes. The resulting seedlings are planted out in long lines, each one subtly different from its neighbour. When they flower, Hammett looks for promising traits that may help him get closer to his goals. The breeding challenges he sets himself take multiple generations of plants and decades of work. He is also famous for his sweet-pea cultivars, and has spent 50 years trying to produce a yellow one—the sweet-pea equivalent of a blue dahlia.
“I’ve come to realise over time that my motivations are no different to a composer of music or painter or a photographer,” he says, pointing out a sign he’s hung on the wall in his workshop: To breed a flower is art.
And, while he still loves the world of dahlia shows, after nearly six decades “composing”, Hammett, at 79, has become more interested in breeding dahlias for the international pot-plant market. “I wanted to see if I could compete against the big boys on the world stage,” he explains. It’s quite a different thing—a flower that’s good for competitions isn’t the same as one that will catch a customer’s eye in the hardware store or look good in a garden.
If Hammett is the artist, then Malcolm Woolmore from Kiwiflora is his agent, bringing that art to the world. Woolmore has disliked dahlias since childhood, when an elderly neighbour used to chastise him any time he got near her prized plants. But now that dahlias are experiencing a global renaissance, leading to growing demand—and royalties—he’s beginning to change his mind.
The logistics are considerable. At present, people may not be able to travel internationally, but tiny fragments of dahlia material called micro-cuttings can. Once Hammett and Woolmore have selected a promising cultivar, they make a micro-cutting and send it to Germany, where it is cleaned of diseases in a special facility. Dahlias are asymptomatic carriers of a number of destructive plant viruses. “If the farmer next door is growing, say, cucumbers,” says Woolmore, “and his crop suddenly gets tobacco mosaic virus, the guy next door [growing dahlias] has to be able to prove that his plants are clean.”
From Germany, the sterile material goes to Guatemala, to vast indoor plant factories with strict hygiene controls. When Woolmore visited one in 2019, he had to sterilise everything and wear a white lab suit, face mask, gloves and special boots, before walking through a water-trap with biocides in it, then an airlock. Inside, the micro-cuttings are duplicated and grown into full plants. Workers in woolly hats and puffer jackets work in cool stores to check harvested cuttings before they are sent by FedEx to be potted up in United States nurseries.
Ultimately, the plants will be sold as an impulse buy in supermarkets and garden centres—up to hundreds of thousands of identical plant clones made from a single seedling that first flowered in Hammett’s garden.
Kiwiflora is a tiny player in a massive industry. “They only tolerate us because we come up with something different that they haven’t got,” says Woolmore. “Something unique in the dahlia world.”
Walking around Hammett’s garden, I can see that point of difference. Many of the dahlia bushes have very dark, purply-bronze foliage—a perfect foil for their bright, contrasting flowers, and a novelty in the international market. The idea came from a visit Hammett made to Mexico, where he noticed the wild dahlias’ wider variety of leaf forms and colours.
Another of Hammett’s goals was to breed a reverse collerette. Collerette dahlias have two rings of petals—an outer one of rounded, flat petals and an inner one of short, ruffled petals overlaid on top. When Hammett started, the rings were all one colour, or the outer ring was darker. He wondered whether it would be possible to breed a collerette with an outer ring lighter than the inner. Many dahlia generations later, he succeeded. He shows me one with pale orange outer petals and red inner ones, set off by its dark leaves. It hasn’t got a name yet.
In another row, he shows me a series of strange-looking dahlias he’s calling “fascinators”, after the asymmetric hats women wear to the races. The flowers have deliberately non-circular forms. “This would be looked on with contempt by the show world,” he says.
Next, we come to a big, blowsy, peachy-pink dahlia—the infamous Café au Lait. Its tubers can sell for $40 on Trade Me, and it was described by one new grower I met at the Waihi show, Joshua Hall, as a “gateway dahlia”. This trending flower, he said, was bringing a whole new generation to dahlias—whereupon they would discover, he added, much better varieties. Café au Lait “has been despised by exhibitors”, says Hammett. “It’s got lousy stems. It’s got a rotten shape. It’s irregular. I’ve seen better-looking mops.”
But in a bouquet in a bridesmaid’s hands, run through a dreamy Instagram filter, it looks gorgeous. “There’s a whole genre [on Instagram] of willowy young women in diaphanous dresses, with big straw hats and a trug, and they’ve gone mad on dahlias,” says Hammett. “There’s a complete dahlia mania at the moment. But it’s with people who would never join a dahlia society.”
Instead, they’re growing cut flowers on a small scale and selling them to local markets, and that opens up opportunities for people like Hammett and Woolmore.
For decades, dahlias have been “trapped”, says Woolmore, by the strict requirements of the show bench. “But the dahlia is much more diverse than that.”
That means Hammett can unleash his creativity. “It’s a completely new audience,” he says. “I can explore new avenues, new aesthetics.”
Three weeks after Waihi, the North Island National Dahlia Show is held in Hamilton. There are a lot more dahlias, and many familiar faces. The Shirleys have brought a new cultivar they imported from the United Kingdom, Aggie White. It’s a spectacular apricot-coloured giant decorative, and looks like the sun on a stick. Joshua Hall—in his early 40s, with teal trousers and a pink pocket square—is exhibiting for the first time, and takes home a swag of certificates and trophies.
Jennifer Chappel from Waihi is one of the main judges, along with Loretta Neilson from Napier. Neilson is white-haired, and has a gannet and Cape Kidnappers emblazoned on her shirt. She is a keen fly-fisher (her numberplate is TROUTN), and she won’t let me tell you how old she is, but she competed in her first dahlia show as a young woman in 1963. She’d seen dahlias in a shop window, and bought six tubers. “Living across the street was bossy Mrs Bradley, who was on the local horticultural committee, and she said, ‘You have got to enter the show,’” Neilson recalls.
So Neilson cut two flowers, chucked them under the baby’s pushchair, and walked two kilometres to the hall, where she won first prize for both of them. (Just in case you thought she was the only competitor, she points out that she beat seven and five other people in each category.)
Neilson was hooked. Wherever she lived, all over the country, she grew dahlias. “When we lived in Timaru, I used to leave the family at the beach and go home in the middle of a three-week holiday to do what was necessary for the dahlias. You’re either doing it properly or not at all.”
But after nearly half a century of competing, Neilson, who used to be known as “the mouth from the south”, is retiring. The physical demands have become too much, and today is her very last dahlia show. And though she’s one of the chief judges, when it comes to the two most important categories, she has to step aside: her flowers are contenders for Champion Bloom and Champion Vase.
She stands back as Chappel and Dennis Rodgers, the president of the National Dahlia Society of New Zealand, deliberate. Neilson’s Light Accord is chosen as Champion Bloom. She’s not surprised. “I’ve told it more than once, ‘You look good enough to eat.’”
Then the judges move to the vases containing three or more smaller dahlias. They’re deciding between Neilson’s and one other, holding them up, examining them from all sides.
“Hell’s teeth! All of a sudden it’s nail-biting,” says Neilson. “Gosh, I’d go out with a bang if I took both again.”
But the other vase is chosen—and then, in a play-off with Neilson’s Light Accord, is placed at the very top of the champions table. It’s the show’s Champion of Champions. Neilson sighs. “Oh well, I was nearly there. I’ve done it many times before.” (It’s true. Other exhibitors say Neilson often needs a wheelbarrow to cart away all her trophies.)
Long-time exhibitors like Neilson are retiring faster than new blood is being recruited. Though there are more than 6500 people on the very active New Zealand Dahlia Growers Facebook page, only a few compete, says Dave Shirley. He’s optimistic: “We just have to try to rope some of them into showing.”
Hammett, on the other hand, believes the culture of exhibiting is “in its death throes”, especially in the Auckland region, partly as a result of new subdivisions and infill housing with no space for gardens.
Neilson says the wider culture has changed, too, with less recreation time and more options for what to do with it.
“There’s a lot of discipline needed, particularly in summertime,” she says. “People just don’t want the discipline of producing good flowers.”
Still, among the entrants in the national show are three sisters from Kaikohe: Milly, Gracie-Mae and Lexi-Rose Leong, aged ten, eight and five. The trio are homeschooled, and their mother, Jennifer Ives, gave them some money to start a business as a school assignment. The middle sister, Gracie-Mae, chose dahlias. She bought ten and entered some of the blooms in the local A&P show, where she got first prize for all of them.
After her success, the family looked for a club to join in Northland, and posted on the New Zealand Dahlia Growers Facebook page. There, dahlia-fanciers with decades of experience share their passion and expertise with those who are just falling in love for the first time (even if the old hands wish more of them would turn up to the shows). When a woman posted about her mother being evicted from a rental property, members offered to help dig up her dahlia tubers so she could take them with her.
In the Leongs’ case, dahlia people around the country started sending them tubers for free, and Dennis Rodgers and his wife drove up from Palmerston North to stay with the family for a week, helping the girls to separate tubers and teaching them the art of dahlia growing.
Suddenly, the sisters had 800 dahlias—an entire field of them. The girls plant and care for them together, and each has chosen her favourites to enter into the show. The long, hot drive from Northland took its toll, but enough blooms survived, and each girl has received a stack of certificates.
Next year, they’re planning to start selling tubers and breeding new varieties, like Hammett does.
“Blue is my favourite colour,” says Milly. “I just need the colour blue.”
Who knows? Maybe they will chance upon the Holy Grail. There is a chance the next breakthrough in dahlia genetics could come from an amateur’s garden. Even Hammett, a scientist through and through, allows a self-sown sweet-pea to survive between the cracks of the paving stones outside his garage, just in case it’s the one-in-a-billion that turns out to be yellow.
Dahlias, with their unusual genetics and wild variation, have even more potential for surprises.