Dahlia coccinea, capricious jewel of the nation

Pamela López tells us about the Dahlia coccinea, capricious jewel of the nation, a flower that is part of the Mexican natural and cultural heritage, described by Nezahualcóyotl as a “special jewel”.

It’s magical to discover that “Heart of the earth”1 is what our ancestors used as a description for what we now call flowers; these emerge as symbols of love or compassion, welcome, farewell, celebration, and even forgiveness.

There are “hearts of the earth” as the economic axis for some places such as the excellent Jamaica Market in Mexico City. They also serve as accompaniments in traditional dishes of our cuisine, like the quesadilla with pumpkin flowers (ayotli in Nahuatl)2 (Cucurbitaceae), and perhaps they also appear as dazzling surprises during a walk in the mountains on a Saturday morning when the dew has unfolded its particles, turning into vapor, and small droplets are dripping from the coccinea-colored petals3, a striking color for the hillside intermediate to the valley.

These flowers are the guardians of summer, carving out their space between the rocky terrain and the undergrowth filled with other species of large leaves. The acocoxóchitl4 also called hollow stems with water (according to Montemayor et al.) or dahlias, captivate even the most distracted stroller.

hlia imperialis sonriente en el sendero del Cerro Pelón de San Gabriel Azteca, Hidalgo México Dahlia imperialis smiling on the trail of Cerro Pelón of San Gabriel Azteca, Hidalgo Mexico
Fotografía / Photography: Pamela López

The Dahlia coccinea are the flowers that by presidential decree beginning in the 60’s decade of the previous century, contributes a standard to the long list of supporters of our natural and cultural heritage, it’s not for nothing that it is the national flower. Nezahualcóyotl himself described it as a “special jewel” 5, I really believe the king-poet.

The Dahlia coccinea is the national flower.

It is called “dahlia” because, in a story of exchanges and correspondences from the late 18th century, the director of the Botanical Garden of Madrid received seeds of this species from the Botanical Garden of Mexico, he analyzed them and decided to name them after Andrés Dahl, Linnaeus’s disciple, yes, that Linnaeus of binomial nomenclature or the classification of flora and fauna with “first and last name”.

Andrés Dahl, in turn, received a gift, having the flower named after him, the most coveted by Europeans, such was the extent of its desirability that a movement was created in England, “The Annual Dahlia Register”, led by floriculturists and agronomists to make it bloom, given that the climatic conditions posed a challenge, turning it into an aspiration.

Personalities wanted to adorn their naturalistic or classic gardens with this beautiful species, they coveted it for their gateways and strolls, however, even Alexander Von Humboldt, along with Bonpland, interested in these marvelous flowers encountered during their travels in Mexico, managed to germinate and witness their “rosea-coccinea”.

Dalia Roja
Fotografía / Photography: Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This flower has a secret whim, starting because it is indeed native to Mexico, the most important source of its germplasm with 35/38 of its species being completely Mexican, despite European efforts, here we realize it’s great whim: never ceasing to be from here. This has a scientific explanation, of course.

It turns out that everything has to do with the altitude, the soil, and the plant’s “camote” (tuber). The first “whim” refers to the preference of dahlias to always be close to an altitude of 2000 meters above sea level and to avoid exceeding 2500 meters above sea level. The second has the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in Querétaro as a companion; it exemplifies the preferences of this flower for its soil diversity, ranging from lithosols (organic-rich soils) to luvisols (acidic soils) and rendzinas (clayey soils), which favor the growth and flowering of our dahlias. Finally, its tuberous root is sensitive and can fall victim to a fungal attack if water is abundant.

The national “heart of the earth” is revered by us and by astonished strangers. It is a treasure that I propose we should see more in our public spaces.

The national “heart of the earth” is revered by us and by astonished strangers. It is a treasure that I propose we should see more in our public spaces, school gardens, museums, local streets, or the planter outside the house or building. If in its whims it were that we saw or smelled it every day, perhaps the love we give it would not be just by decree.