August sees the start of the dahlia season, their haute couture blooms erupting to add eye-catching impact to summer borders and pots.
The resurgence in popularity, over the past 10 years or more, of these glamour-puss plants is undoubtedly down to the smouldering good looks of 'Bishop of Llandaff', a scarlet flowered beauty with dark bronze foliage that quickly became the gardeners' must-have plant back in the 1990s. But our love-affair with dahlias is nothing new. Post-war gardens in the 1950s and 60s were filled with these accommodating plants, the breeders then concentrating on developing the spikey, so-called 'cactus' types with their quilled petals fulfilling the demand for modern forms and an enthusiasm for the futuristic space-age. And yet even before that era of dahlia delirium, the early decades of the twentieth century saw a huge popularity in the 'decorative' types that made these blooms such stalwarts of church flower arrangers.
So why have these fabulous plants enjoyed periods of meteoric garden stardom, only to plunge into a horticultural black hole and be kept going only by the passion of specialist societies and nurseries? Well, like clothes on the catwalks, the plants in our gardens are affected by the fickle hand of fashion. Just as hemlines rise and fall, our tastes in flowers ebbs and flows, and while dahlias are still in the ascendant at the moment, they'll eventually lose their mass appeal, to be overtaken by other 'must-have' plants. Fashions in gardening, however, have been generally slower to catch on but last longer than in clothing. OK, so there have been some flash-in-the-pan plants that fade into obscurity after a single season – usually due to poor garden performance – but if a plant becomes truly 'de rigueur', then it will stay top of the pops for many years. Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff', Verbena bonariensis and Begonia 'Apricot Shades' are all proof of this.
But such plant trends could be set to become more extreme and transient as we consume more and more information in our modern world. While every gardener has their own favourite plants and colours, based on their own experience, our hobby can be greatly influenced by visiting other gardens, flicking through the pages of books and magazines, as well as watching the horticultural glitterati on the telly. Now the booming world of social media is allowing us to share pictures of plants and flowers, and make our own comments and judgements about gardening. You might think that this could be liberating for gardeners, allowing us to set the agenda and lead the trends. But it's not just us who can access such new forms of communication: the breeders, nurseries and garden centres are ahead of us, using their marketing and sales teams to seed themes, trends and ideas into social media streams to influence our buying in the future.
So, who knows? Dahlias could soon fade into obscurity, once again, but for now at least they are filling our gardens in all their glorious diversity of flower colour and form. And I for one love them!