Notoriously difficult dahlias are the divas of the flower world.
But Red Deer’s Lorne McArthur spent half a century learning how to handle these temperamental beauties, and is now one of Alberta’s foremost dahlia growers and hybridizers.
For the past seven years, the 79-year-old has been running Canada’s only approved dahlia trial garden on his property on the outskirts of Red Deer, off 40th Avenue and southwest of the landfill.
Caring for dahlias has become a pretty much full-time labour of love — at least during the summer months — but the retired farmer and taxidermist considers it an “adventure.”
Part of the excitement, he said, comes from never knowing what eye-popping, exotic colour combinations will unwrap from each flower bud. And the bounty of blooms that appear at the end of July and last until the frost give McArthur a fulfilling sense of accomplishment.
Although his dahlias are only occasionally sold at the Red Deer farmers market (in the Voyager Art and Tile booth, run by his artist son Brian McArthur and daughter-in-law Dawn Detarando), every summer, McArthur enjoys sharing the visual splendor of his Echoglen Gardens with members of the public.
Among the 20-plus types of dahlias McArthur has seeded and hybridized over the years is the striking flaming yellow and fuchsia ‘echo raylene,’ named after a granddaughter.
He also cultivates dahlia tubers from growers across Canada in the trial garden.
These avid gardeners want their hybrids to accepted by the American Dahlia Society — and the gruelling process requires they be propagated in a trial garden for four years before being officially classified as a new type.
“Dahlias are a challenge… they’re not the easiest things to grow,” admitted McArthur, who considers the native Mexican flower that comes in 22 varieties, 15 colours, and six sizes “about 20-times” harder to cultivate than gladiolas.
Although he estimates only one percent of all seeds become quality flowers, McArthur believes the most difficult aspect of dahlia growing in a northern climate is finding the right conditions for storing the tubers over the winter. If they’re too cold, they freeze, and if too moist, they grow mouldy.
“If you can find a cool spot under the stairs,” it just might work out — fingers crossed.
McArthur’s interest in growing things sprang from his up-bringing on a farm near Trochu. In the early 1960s, most rural folks enjoyed bringing produce to fairs and festivals, where prizes were be given for the biggest pumpkin or longest carrot.
McArthur and his wife Marilyn enjoyed entering their vegetables in these friendly contests. “You’d never win anything — maybe just a ribbon,” he recalled, but it sharpened his competitive spirit.
After the couple and their children moved to the Red Deer area some 47 years ago, the McArthurs began growing gladiolas. Then McArthur met Rev. Jim Rowse, a local Baptist minister, who got him hooked on the intricacies of growing high-maintenance dahlias.
Although Rowse passed away a dozen years ago, McArthur noted that Rowse’s ‘parkland rave’ was named the No. 1 dahlia in North America in 2016.
The hobby has led McArthur to meet new friends and attend dahlia events across North America, including the 100th Anniversary of the American Dahlia Society celebration in New York.
Despite society’s urbanization over the past few decades. McArthur’s glad to see some people still taking pleasure in growing things. He hopes more young people will get into cultivation to bear the garden spade into the future.
The Alberta Gladiola and Dahlia Association will have their annual show Aug. 24 and 25 at Red Deer’s Pidherney Centre curling club.