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A Glory of Color in His Dahlias : Exhibition Varieties Grow Into a Cut-Flower Business

July 30, 1988|LINDA FRENCH

Pop Talk: a variegated purple and white.

Aloha: a red-and-yellow flame, semi-cactus form.

So striking is an arrangement of exhibition dahlias that people who rarely notice flowers at all seem compelled to comment. One variety looks like an "explosion," a second like a "purple sea urchin," and a third reminds an observer of a "tequila sunrise." One evokes the mythical figure Medusa. And one, which people seem automatically to nickname Black Dahlia, looks as though it is under a black light.

These are exhibition dahlias--not to be confused with bedding dahlias offered in seed catalogues and at nurseries. Bedding dahlias, the common dahlias used in garden borders, are usually small, single-form flowers with open centers. Exhibition dahlias, on the other hand, are mostly double forms and grow much taller.

A Better Idea

In the past, they have been cultivated mainly by enthusiasts who compete in dahlia shows, in which individual flowers are judged for such qualities as color, form, foliage, size. However, Smokey Smith, who has grown dahlias for 20 years and exhibited for 10 (and has been president and vice president of the Inglewood and South Coast Dahlia societies), has got a better idea: to sell his show dahlias as cut flowers.

By word of mouth, his avocation-turned-vocation has gained him the attention of many wealthy customers, most of whom are in the film business. He also sells to select florists. Every flower he offers for sale could be entered in a dahlia show: "My No. 1 goal is quality," he says.

Take a summer walk through Smokey Smith's Santa Monica back yard and you are impressed by the seriousness of his business. Plants are in every stage of growth. In the greenhouse, potential new varieties germinate from seeds; outside the greenhouse door, hundreds of seedlings thrive in trays and pots. Under a wooden shelter, tubers produce cuttings that are used to propagate the established varieties. Plants at times even are kept on the roof of the garage. Most every inch of space in Smith's yard is coming up dahlias.

Some of the dahlias growing in the open ground grow as tall as a person and have flowers as big as an adult's head, but most are waist-high--and in many colors: purples, reds, pinks, oranges, yellows, whites and all combinations.

Native to the mountains of Mexico, dahlias were discovered by the Cortez expedition and taken back to Europe. By the 1800s, the modern types of dahlias were beginning to be developed. Today there are thousands of named varieties of exhibition dahlias. Of the hundreds of plants that Smith has in his back yard and on acreage in Malibu, he grows about 35 varieties, all known for their long-lasting, cut-flower quality.

Some varieties of show dahlias get to be 6 feet tall, and flowers can be 16 inches across. Every color is bright and clear (there are no blues or greens). There are bicolored and variegated flowers. Flames are a combination of red, orange and yellow. There are 15 forms, or shapes, that dahlias take, including cactus (with spiky petals sticking straight out or curving toward the center), decorative (with uniform petals forming the shape of a ball), laciniated (petals with split ends) and waterlily (a flatter flower with large broad petals).

Smith is on constant quest for the "totally bizarre" dahlia, he says, and to produce new varieties he propagates about 500 seedlings a year. It's difficult to control the parentage of dahlias, and much is left to which way the wind blows. Of the 500 seedlings Smith brings to flower, he might keep about five. Those with good form and color that interest him (he throws away the "junk dahlias"), he propagates for three years, a stabilization time that ensures that the qualities he's looking for will hold. After that period, he can introduce it commercially and give it a name.

A Dark-Purple Dahlia

He is about to introduce a beautiful dark-purple, almost black, waterlily-form dahlia. Another is his formal decorative that is soft-pink with a cream center. He is experimenting with a novelty "thistle" that has blood-red petals with spiny-looking appendages.

A perfect opportunity to view these magnificent flowers presents itself today and Sunday at the Inglewood Dahlia Society Show at the Manhattan Village Shopping Mall, at Sepulveda and Rosecrans boulevards in Manhattan Beach, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. All dahlias will be given away Sunday about 4 p.m.

For all their beauty, it may seem difficult to fathom growing show dahlias in your own garden. Although they are, as Smith says, "intense-labor" flowers, demanding a few minutes' attention almost every day, the results are worth the effort. According to Smith, the only way to obtain exhibition-quality dahlia tubers is through the local dahlia societies.

The Southern California, San Diego County and South Coast dahlia societies, along with the Inglewood club, sponsor shows during July and August, at which you can find out about the root sales held in March and April. Tubers usually sell for about $2.

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