We all know that dahlias are delicious to the eye and the heart, but also – great news! Dahlias (Acocoxochitl) are edible. Flower and tuber. Hooray.
However, as with many edible plants… there’s edible, and then there’s tasty. All dahlias are edible, which is a great starting point for experimenting with. And some varieties are delicious, which is even better.
Dahlias come in abundant diversity… because of the type of plant that they are, and also because their seeds don’t grow true to type – which means that folks have been breeding new dahlia cultivars for a very long time.
This also means you can grow new varieties of new dahlias yourself, if you steward and propagate their seeds well.
Couple this diversity with the fact that our knowledge on how dahlias were first used in Mexico is patchy because of colonisation and attempted cultural erasure… there’s plenty of learning to do here, in order to add dahlias to your list of resilient, perennial edible plants to grow in your garden.
After hearing that dahlias were edible, I went and looked it up. I couldn’t easily find much on dahlia’s edibility, save a few scientific papers confirming this was so. So I went digging.
And it turns out, worldwide, there are A LOT of dedicated Dahlia Societies. Dahlias are A Thing, for many folks. There is even heated debate. And contested knowledge, and histories. And many, many, many cultivars.
But not, so far as I could find, many folks outside of Mexico that are actually eating dahlias.
Which is weird, to me, because who doesn’t want to grow a mind-blowingly-beautiful-flower whose tubers you can also EAT in winter? And make delicious ice cream, lemonade, and quesadillas with?
I mean, sign me up. Seriously.
So – here is some of the useful resources around dahlias and their edibility that i found. Please hit me up if you have a resource to add.
Dahlias are indigenous to Mexico, and continue to grow wild and also be actively cultivated (both for beauty, food, ceremony and medicine) there. There’s at least 41 varieties of dahlia listed as native to Mexico, and some of these were cultivated by many peoples, including the Aztec/Mexica.
Original names in Nahuatl include Acocoxochitl “flower of hollow stems with water” – atl (water), cocotli (tube) and xochitl (flower) and also Chichipatli “bitter medicine” – chichic (bitter) and patli (medicine).
There’s plenty of histories of the dahlia that focus on the Spanish invader/coloniser’s records – but when it comes to their edibility and uses, most of these are, frankly, a bit disparaging and patchy.
The dahlia seems to have a contested history – some scholars think it was featured in petroglyphs and held up as important and sacred, others contest that marigolds were the main flower featured, and dahlias were a minor element.
Either way, the dahlia ended up as the national flower of Mexico.
Most of these english-language histories focus on the dahlia varieties from an aesthetic perspective – very few focus on (or even mention) their edibility and medicinal uses.
I suspect this doesn’t actually indicate how much dahlias were eaten in Mexico, but does indicate that the colonizers were interested in the dahlia as an exotic, gorgeous trophy plant, which was easily transportable via it’s tubers back to Europe.
A similar thing happened with tomatoes – which were brought back from Mexico only to be used as ornamental plants for hundreds of years in Europe, before their deliciousness was ‘discovered’. Hmm.
Time to de-colonise the dahlia
So – the way that selective histories, selective fact gathering, and colonisation can attempt to erase culture needs to be noted, here.
And because further and successive ‘histories’ of the dahlia have been based on those patchy spanish records, and because, outside of Mexico, dahlia varieties have been actively selected for beauty rather than nourishment for a few hundred years, we’re now left with a ‘you could eat them, but probably don’t bother‘ vibe, when it comes to dahlias.
Which I’m sure you’ve heard before, when it comes to an indigenous food and medicine plant that has been downgraded and de-prioritised by empire, for a range of reasons.
Time to de-colonise the dahlia!
Or at least work on de-colonising our relationship with this amazing plant – by learning more about how to use its gifts. The dahlias themselves, like the culture and peoples that they come from, continue to blossom, remember, adapt, grow, and give.
However – surprise – there’s plenty of Mexican resources on how dahlias have been and continue to be used as food in Mexico that I found during my research, which don’t seem to have made it into the various Dahlia Societies histories.
Here’s a few of the resources I found on that front:
- The Mexican Dahlia / Acocoxochitl Association
- History of the Dahlia or Acocoxochitl, national flower of Mexico (video)
- The Renaissance of the Dahlia in Huamantla: interview with Master José Mejía (video)
- A catalog of some of the dahlias of Mexico
- Indigenous distribution of Dahlias, by The Mexican Dahlia / Acocoxochitl Association
While all dahlias are edible (sofar as I could find), it seems some are more delicious than others. This is to be expected with a plant that readily diversifies, and one which, again, has been bred for looks rather than nourishment for the last few hundred years, outside of Mexico.
Consistently, however, the flower and the tuber is the most used part. I have also eaten the leaves of dahlias from my garden, with no ill-effects, but that’s not exactly definitive as to their edibility.
So – to begin with the eating of them… here’s what the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity has to say about Acocoxochitle (Dahlia).
Dahlia flowers have been and continue to be extensively used in salads, drinks and syrups in Mexico – their flavours range from sweet to bland to spicy.
This study found that various dahlia flowers, especially the darker coloured ones, contained useful amounts of antioxidants.
Dahlia flowers, added whole, would also be a fine (and beautiful) addition to any wild soda that you chose to ferment.
Dahlias grow from an edible, starchy tuber which can be eaten and enjoyed either raw or cooked. They’re full of inulin, which is helpful both to folks with diabetes, and also in its prevention, as it lowers blood glucose levels. Inulin is also a great pre-biotic, so helps your gut process other foods better by supporting your gut biota.
Dahlia tubers are (within their variability) also a good source of potassium, riboflavin, and vitamin B6, and contains copper and manganese as well.
In short, dahlia tubers are very good for you.
Typically, tubers are always peeled first, no matter how they’re prepared, as the skin is quite bitter.
The deliciousness of particular tubers varies widely! Some are sweet-ish, some more bland, some are bitter. And the flavours change with storage and become sweeter as the inulin converts to fructose, as outlined here.
Keep in mind – outside of Mexico, dahlias have been bred and cultivated for nearly 500 years for their flowers, exclusively, not the taste of their tubers. So it’s no surprise that we now have MANY amazing dahlias that don’t necessarily taste great. But that doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t still delicious!
So as mentioned above, the varieties most identified as being used for cooking are what is now known as the Common Garden Dahlia (D. x pinnata or D. variabilis) and the Red Dahlia (D. coccinea). Both of these have a single row of petals.
There is also the yellow gem dahlia that’s recommended by Cultivariable as a good eater – this is a ‘pom pom’ type of dahlia, with petals in a Fibonacci whirl.
Taste and texture of dahila tubers
So – what to dahlia tubers taste like? Kinda like a water chestnut crossed with a yacon crossed with celery, but with the ability to sweeten and enhance flavors too And super duper good for your blood sugar, and your biome. Hooray!
The species that are cultivated for eating have tubers that are crunchy, like a water chestnut or yacon – both when raw, and also when cooked lightly. Cooking for longer softens them, and they’re also often used in a paste-form, to heighten other flavours.
There’s a wide range of recipes below, but in short, they’re eaten in raw slices with seasoning, in cooked chunks as a crunchy addition to all kinds of dishes from gratin to quesadillas, as a paste in ice cream, with fish, and more. Then there’s the syrups and lemonades that folks make with dahlia tubers as well.
Given their similarity in texture and inulin to jerusalem artichokes, you could use a jerusalem artichoke pickle recipe and substitute for dahlia tubers. Our friend down the road, Bud, has been pickling dahlia tubers for years this way, and speaks highly of them.
There’s also a syrup made from the tubers called Dacopa, which is apparently still drunk in Mexico (There was also a coffee-substitute manufactured from dahlia tubers called Dacopa for a while – it din’t take off). And these folks are making Chichicpatli, a dahlia beer.
Multiple of these recipes refer to a book Recetario Flores de Dalia which I believe is by Jose Mejia of the Mexican Dahlia / Acocoxochitl Association.
Here’s a snippet from “Recetario Flores de Dalia”, translated by True Love Seeds, which is a great staring point –
“First clean the tubers, remove the small roots, boil them for 30-45 minutes, and peel off their skin.
From there, you have several options: you can make cubes and add them to carrots and peas in a rice dish; cut and fry them like French fries; add milk, butter, salt, and pepper and puree them like mashed potatoes; or add them to a puree of eggplant and tomatoes, Middle Eastern style.
For older, more traditional uses, you can cook cubed dahlias in honey and cinnamon. For a savory pancake, mix dahlia petals, cooked and chopped quelites (wild spinach), eggs (turkey or chicken), flour, grated cheese, and salt, make into patties, and fry in oil.
You can also place the tubers in the middle of agave leaves (or alone) and cook in embers for an hour and eat with a little salt.”
Dahlia recipes – savoury
- Quesadilla Packets with Dahlia – Quesadillas de paquete con dalia
- Dahlia Kim Chi
- Dahlia Pan Haggerty
- Dahlia bread
- Sliced raw, with chilli, lemon and salt
- Recipe methods outlined by Mexican Dahlia / Acocoxochitl Association
Dahlia recipes – sweet
- Dacopa paste/syrup (to fold into ice cream)
- Fragrant dahlia ice cream
- Dahlia Lemonade
- Recipe methods outlined by Mexican Dahlia / Acocoxochitl Association
Dahlias as medicinal plants
Dahlias have been traditionally used to treat a range of skin and internal ailments, and are mentioned as such in the spanish records.
Dahlia variabilis has been recorded as being use for a diuretic, diaphoretic, anti-colic, anti-flatulent, anti-tuberculosis. Dahlia coccinea is recorded as being used for a tonic, diuretic, diaphoretic, anti-colic, anti-flatulent.
Keen to grow some delicious dahlias? Here’s a few great resources to get you started –
- Growing Dahlias (Cocoxochitl) of Every Shape, Size, and Color – Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
- How to grow Dahlias from Tubers – Veggie & Flower Garden Seeds
- How to Grow Dahlias from Seed – Floret Flowers
- How to Grow Edible Dahlias – Cultivariable
- How to Divide and Store Dahlia Tubers – Veggie & Flower Garden Seeds
- Discovering Dahlias – a great book by Floret
- Floret’s Dahlia Archive needs an extra mention bc it is generous, extensive and awesome.
I hope this is enough info for you to be inspired, go forth and cultivate (and also eat) as many Dahlia / Acocoxochitl varieties as you can get your hands on.
Because our gardens and neighbourhoods need all the resilient storage crops, that are also delicious and versatile, that we can possibly fit in – both for our household’s, and our whole community’s nourishement, health and future.
Add to that pollinator support, so much history, medicine, culture, resistance, and endless variable beauty in their varieties… I think it’s time to thank the dahlias, and their seed-keepers, who have stewarded this incredible, generous plant so very well, for so very long.
Long may the Acocoxochitl and their people bloom. And may we learn well from the dahlia’s many teachings and gifts, and join them.
Big thanks to all the knowledge keepers whose experience I was able to access for this article, both past and present. Big thanks to Veggie & Flower Garden Seeds for the use of their dahlia photos. All other photo sources indicated under images.