Dahlias not only look stunning but they also offer a host of uses and benefits. In this guide, we’ll uncover how dahlias have been used as a food source since Aztec times, in addition to their cultural significance around the world.
Early Dahlia Uses
Dahlias grew wild for centuries in the mountainous areas of Mexico and Guatemala. It’s not believed that the flowers were actually cultivated by the Aztecs, although they may have gathered them as a foraged food source.
It’s also thought that the Aztecs used the flowers as a ceremonial symbol from a handful of carvings left behind, showing a shape similar to the Dahlia bloom. Not much is known for sure about Dahlias and how they were used, traded, or symbolically valued during this period.
It is believed that the large Tree Dahlia was used to carry water in its hollow stems, earning it the name Acocotli in Aztec, which means “water cane.” This Tree Dahlia was the first species that explorers encountered and, for many years, was believed to be the only type native to the area. Smaller and more colorful dahlia varieties were only discovered decades later, in the 1600s.
Traditional Dahlia Uses
The original interest in Dahlia plants that led to their import into Europe was not based on the beauty of their flowers.
Indeed, Aztecs largely didn’t admire them as ornamental plants either but rather as practical ones. In addition to using the stems of the largest species as a water-carrying tool, they ate the tubers as a food source.
Aztecs mostly gathered wild Dahlia roots, and there is little evidence of their early cultivation. But when the plants were first imported and grown in Spain, it was a potential food source for farming. The root tastes bland and like a cross between potato and celery, with some species being too bitter for palatable eating.
Modern Dahlias can be eaten this way, but care must be taken to ensure you’re only eating an actual member of the correct genus.
Dahlia flowers come in almost all the colors of the rainbow, even pale white and yellow varieties. However, there are no blue Dahlias and few purple varieties.
Even the infamous Black Dahlia is a name only, as the only dark-colored Dahlia blooms are burgundy or dark red. With dahlia varieties available in almost every color and combination of shades, it’s possible to find a Dahlia to match every garden.
Aside from variations in color and petal shape, the Dahlia has a rich symbolic history to offer the flower arranger or gardener.
Due to their bright colors and habit of growing on tall, singular stems, Dahlias symbolize positivity, good energy, and happiness.
They also tend to symbolize standing out from the crowd and making your own path. These modern connotations are common to both uses in bouquets and for permanent symbolism such as tattoos.
However, Dahlia flowers have had slightly different associations in the past. Not all of them have been positive, depending on the culture. It is the national flower of Mexico, but this was only a relatively recent addition and not a long-standing part of their history.
Spiritual and Religious Connections
During the Victorian era, Dahlias gained religious associations and were connected to the resurrection of Jesus. They also were considered a symbol of the everlasting life promised to faithful followers.
However, this changed as time went on, and the flower lost most of its spiritual meaning. Even within the Victorian era, the meaning shifted from a religious one to a symbol of passion and everlasting love.
In the culture of Thailand, the Dahlia flower has acquired an entirely different meaning than the rest of the world. While the flowers thrive there as a perennial due to the warm temperatures, many people avoid giving them as gifts due to their symbolism.
The plant was first called “rak rae”, a term that means “unstable love.” This gave it a somewhat negative association with obsession or fleeting romance. The name was eventually changed to a term that means “first love” instead, but it still carries somewhat of a mixed meaning in Thailand.
Dahlia flowers are a common wedding bouquet addition for modern brides who want color options they can’t get from other, more traditional options. Thanks to its association with love during the Victorian era, Dahlia blooms remain popular today as well as a wedding flower.
They’re less commonly sent as a passionate declaration of love, but they still feature in fun bouquets for modern weddings.
Victorian Language of the Flowers
As mentioned above, the Victorians associated two distinct and very different sets of symbolism with this flower. First, it was a potent religious symbol for Christians who wanted something bright and colorful to counteract the dreary sentiments of the time. The flower’s resilience and ability to grow tall and colorful out of muck made it an inspiration.
Yet this meaning shifted with time and evolved into something new before the Victorian era ended. By the close of the period, the Dahlia was considered a symbol of everlasting love and beauty instead. It was a romantic symbol that was sometimes used for wedding decorations, a practice that continues to this day.
All true members of the Dahlia genus are safe to eat in moderation. The colorful petals and the tuberous roots are edible raw, or cooked. The petals may lose their color if cooked, so try using them raw on salads. Try cooking a few roots the next time you divide or move Dahlias.
An interesting flower with a long history to match its bold appearance, the Dahlia deserves a second look thanks to its host of benefits and uses. These flowers are easy to grow when planted during the right time of year, but they’re also edible.