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Dahlias reign at national flower show this weekend at Tacoma convention center

The eyes of America (at least those eyes that love dahlias) are on Tacoma this weekend as the American Dahlia Society has its annual national show at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center.

And not just America.

Steve Cox was at the show Saturday. He’s vice president of the Victorian Dahlia Society in Melbourne, Australia. In his seminar, “Dahlias Down Under,” Cox led dahlia lovers through a tour of a land that is not particularly hospitable to the tuber.

“They’re going to learn how we deal with the bush fires and the heat,” he said.

Dahlias rank third in popularity behind roses and begonias among growers down in the land of kangaroos, although, Cox said, they “just seem to be making a resurgence.”

While Cox grows perhaps 200 varieties, Thomas Cleere of Mount Sinai, New York, grows 500.

“On Long Island, that’s a lot,” he said Saturday.

As he speaks, people walk up to introduce themselves.

“Dahlias are just a vehicle,” Cleere said. “It’s the people it’s all about.”

David Brown came from England. He originated Great Britain’s National Dahlia Collection, and these days he specializes in photographs of the flower.

“They’re a lot easier than growing,” he said, noting that in a lifetime he has planted 5,000.

“They are very popular in England,” he said, especially among people who grow for color in “patio pots.”

The national collection has registered some 1,600 varieties, he said, and many are available for sale online.

He was particularly gobsmacked this weekend, he said, by the size of some varieties on display.

Few of those varieties are for sale this weekend, although many might be available from online sellers or at nurseries. Rather than profit, the society show seems to focus more on display. Of many hundred blooms decorating the exhibition hall, most have been judged for criteria including color, shape and size.

They stand in vases, in baskets, in arrangements on driftwood or drifting themselves like water lilies in deep bowls of water.

The shapes of these dahlias range from round and tight to round and as spiky as a punk-rocker’s hairdo. Sizes go from as big as a fat man’s dinner plate to the diameter of a quarter. Colors flow from yellow — lots of yellow — to reds then purples both deep and tending toward lavender.

By any criteria they do not look alike, like daffodils might, or gladioli, but what they have in common is that tuber. Tulips have bulbs, an iris comes from a corm, but a dahlia looks to the tuber.

Some of the varieties on display this weekend are experimental, well on their three-year trip from first bloom to official recognition.

Vivian Connell grows 5,000 dahlias — plants, seedlings and “pot roots” — on a half-acre farm between Puyallup and Sumner.

“Every weekend in August and September there will be a dahlia show,” she said. Members of the 15-chapter Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers come from throughout the Puget Sound region, up to Vancouver and down to Portland.

“I think the color, and the beauty, and the variety is the magic touch,” she said.

On a brief tour of the exhibition, she points to the federation’s choice of Best Dahlia of the Year, “Verrone’s Morning Star,” with its petals unfolding between precisely — and winningly — uniform gaps.

She recalls how “Valley Porcupine,” a purple and cream variety with serrated leaves, was not initially heralded, how experts “almost threw it out, but it has become one of the most popular dahlias.”

She has been impressed this year by dahlias named “A.C. Rooster” and “Irish Pinwheel.”

Tastes differ, she said. A local variety called “Tahoma Alan” won a national award in England, “but still they don’t like it here. You have successes, you have failures.”

Connell admits that dahlias do offer a few concerns: They do not last long as cut flowers and they do attract earwigs. But then, on the other side, they do well in hospitals and nursing homes because they do not carry any scent, and they do offer bright color even as autumn trees shed their summer leaves.

As she speaks in an aisle within a sea of color, people stop to listen, to join in, to ask questions.

“There’s nothing we’d rather talk about than dahlias,” she said.

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