by Naomi Slade
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Fashion is a fickle mistress – a truism that holds as well in the flower bed as any other – but it’s always seemed strange to me that the dahlia should have been such a victim of her caprice. For what’s not to love about a plant that rewards your attentions – at precisely the moment when the rest of the garden is beginning to look a little jaded and summer-singed about the edges – with a rapturous display of colour and form and drama for your beds and borders?
Ah, but what of subtlety? Knobs to subtlety, I say. I delight in the delicate curl of a rose petal as much, if not considerably more so than anyone else, starting in May and continuing right through July, but by August I want my socks blowing off while I lie gasping in the borders, scrabbling about for my gin glass. High summer is frankly too hot for subtlety, and the light too uncompromising.
I have no idea where Naomi Slade stands on drinking gin while deadheading, but I’m pretty sure she stands firmly in the pro-dahlia camp. Her latest book, Dahlias – beautiful varieties for home and garden, was published by Pavilion Books at the beginning of August 2018, and is an unashamed celebration of these fabulous flowers.
The main section of the book consists a directory of a selection (“over 65”, according to the jacket blurb) of the 57,000 dahlias in cultivation, lavishly illustrated with photographs by Georgianna Lane. This opts not to group according to the traditional dahlia classifications, but categorises according to moods; hence chapters entitled “romantic”, “fabulous and funky”, “dramatic and daring”, “classic and elegant”. This organisation seemed a little arbitrary to me at first, but on reflection, I think it might be preferable to a reader intending to select varieties for a particular planting scheme. The surrounding chapters introduce us to the dahlia, provide historical context and botanical information, and furnish us with the horticultural wherewithal to be able to make a decent fist of growing these flowers for ourselves. There are details on genetics, anatomy and classification – the last two with beautifully executed line illustrations – as well as tips for preserving vase life when used as cut flowers.
For the purposes of full disclosure, I should say that I’m not an entirely unbiased reviewer, having been asked by the author just before Christmas to proofread a near final version of the text. But seeing a publication evolve on screen and as printed sheets never quite prepares you for the finished product, and I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I received a physical copy of the book in the post.
The hardback volume is pleasingly chunky, but at 25cm in height by a smidge under 20cm wide, and around 2.5cm thick, not so large as to make it unwieldy or uncomfortable to hold. Which is just as well as the jacket designer has wisely allowed the photographs to do the work on the cover boards (no dust jacket), where dahlias in shades of pale apricot, through pinks to darkest maroon invite the curious to pick the book up and handle it, turn it over, and then back again, so that by the time you’ve noticed the subtle debossing of the title’s deep red foil, you’re hooked. And when you do open the covers to flick through the pages – printed on an uncoated paper stock with full-bleed images and generously shot through with double page spreads of what could safely be described as the most ravishing dahlia pornography – you’d have to be in possession of an iron will to resist the urge to sink back into a comfortable chair and spend some quality alone time with your new find.
Book design and photography working hand in hand to sell the book, then, but what of the committed reader’s more intimate experience? The layout is understated and elegant, giving the text, photography and illustrations room to breathe, making use of a two column grid for the more copy-heavy chapters, and a single wide measure with full-page images for the directory section. A no-nonsense, classic sans serif font is used throughout, and thankfully the character size won’t have anyone peering at the pages in an effort to decipher the text. The only questionable design decision is the use of a poorly rendered small caps typeface for the introductory paragraph on three chapters – it’s a small point, but it hinders legibility for those paragraphs, and so niggles.
I could so far have been describing a rather lovely coffee table book, but this is no such anodyne affair. The text is bursting with Naomi’s passion and enthusiasm for these plants, and it’s hard not to be swept along with her on a lyrical flight to the dahlia’s land of origin,
I want to climb mountains in Mexico and discover wild dahlias in their most remote refuges. Rejoice as they flourish untamed in their own bright and humid summer. Watch as they crumble and collapse, familiar yet strange, in the light, sharp frost of their upland winter. To see a plant in its natural environment makes my skin tingle with excitement.
And this is no purple prose, but copy with substance that you can get your teeth into. There’s history and anecdote, together with sufficient horticultural science to fascinate rather than to bamboozle. From sixteenth century conquistadors to octoploid cells, from competing accounts of the origins of the cactus dahlia to wandering transpons and genetic variability – there’s plenty here to entertain and inform and, should you want more, a full glossary together with details of societies and organisations who will be able to satisfy the enquiring mind of the most enthusiastic new dahlia acolyte.
It’s an informed account of a plant with a fascinating and chequered history, communicated with a kind of energetic and personable air that make it a joy to read. It’s true that you can use the book to dip into for inspiration – the gorgeous photography, catchy captions and usefully tabulated information on each of the featured varieties make this easy – but I think you’ll find yourself reading it from front to back. And enjoying every moment.
Dahlias: Beautiful varieties for home and garden by Naomi Slade with photography by Georgianna Lane is published by Pavilion Books, and is available here, or better yet, from your local indy bookstore.
To hear more about the book in the author’s own words, download my interview with Naomi on the upcoming episode of The Virgin Gardener Podcast (Episode 6).
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Hello! I’m Andrew, gardener, writer, photographer, and owner of a too-loud laugh, and I’m so pleased you’ve found your way to Gardens, weeds & words. You can read a more in-depth profile of me on the About page, or by clicking this image.