Update From Rochelle (fall 2023) – It is rare that a plant catches the zeitgeist, and when you look back at a time, you can see that it was uniquely of an era. The fluffy blooms of cafe au lait dahlia is a zeitgeist flower of the late 20teens and into the pandemic times.
Growing Cafe Au Lait Dahlia
The gorgeous blooms of dahlias, in general, are timeless. And the lush petals of dinnerplate dahlias will never stop delighting us. But I think the dahlia zeitgeist moment – that solidified around the pale peach and creamy coffee colors of au lait dahlias is over. Looking back, it is often even easier to see a trend once it has passed, and in the United States, the decorative dahlia trend – led by Cafe au Lait has surely passed (as I am writing this in 2023).
But to the true garden makers, cafe au lait dahlias will eternally remain as one of the most rewarding garden flowers to grow, not just because of the wow factor and bloom size, but also because there is nothing better than a vase full of blousy blooms anchored with sumptuous creamy dahlias.
Dahlias have receded back to being the domain of more serious gardeners, and I think that’s fine. They require some commitment to grow.
Namely – these are plants that will need to be staked (I don’t know about you, but this can be a deal breaker for me – staking is a huge pain in the neck, IMO, and I have very little patience for it). I do my best to do it for two plants that I love – dahlias and tomatoes – but even still, I try to shop for plants that indicate I might be able to get away with no staking or at least allow my weak staking skills to be good enough.
Cafe Au Lait dahlias are NOT this flower. These plants will get large and tall, and the blooms will be heavy. These large flowers need the attention of a caretaker who is available and paying attention enough to construct and maintain a staking system that will not topple over under the weight of these dahlias’ strong stems.
Dahlia plants that grow more than a couple of feet tall will need extra support. If you make sure you plant them in full sun, this will help if you stick at staking – as you will be less likely to be dealing with a plant that is reaching for the light it needs. The “reaching” is what always overwhelms my staking efforts.
Overwintering Dahlias When You Are in A Cold Area
The other big hassle of dahlia growing is the overwintering of dahlia tubers. Of course, if you don’t care about the extra expense, you can put in new dahlia tuber orders in spring and just leave them in the ground for the winter – but if you live in a place (like New England) where the tuber will freeze in the ground – they will not overwinter. You can keep them by digging them up in the fall, storing them in a protected dry place, and then replating them in the spring. This, again, is something I find only the most serious growers will reliably achieve.
There are advantages of overwintering, though. You can pot your tubers earlier in the season and increase the chance that your first blooms will begin earlier in the season. Dahlias need 80-100 days (or roughly 12-16 weeks) of warm weather to bloom. This typically means that the earliest blooms will not arrive until late summer to early fall, and I find that in New England, they are still blooming when the first frost takes them down. So – if you can move the timeline forward with early planting indoors in a container where you can protect them from the danger of frost, you might be able to get more blooms from your plants.
Growing Flowers Professionally
If you are growing Cafe au Lait for wedding work, I highly recommend you take a course about growing flowers professionally (there are a few on the market – I haven’t taken any of them, but you can email me if you need a recommendation based on what I’ve heard through the grapevine). To grow the most coveted wedding flowers for floral arrangement, you are going to need to practice. These beautiful flowers will need you to do much more than dig a hole and drop in the dahlia tubers. I already mentioned that during the growing season, you will need to make sure that they get good and direct sunlight for 6 hours a day. Otherwise, the sturdy stems will bend and snake until they can reach for the light they demand – and this will make them less workable for vase life.
If you are a home grower, the pink blush blooms will be a pretty addition to a garden bed. Because of their height (mine have always been at least 3 ft tall (but often closer to 4′ or more), they will likely be at the back or center of the border plant. They are good against a fence line that will help you with the staking.
What to plant with Cafe Au Lait Dahlias
I like to plant them with grasses (because I like planting lots of things with grasses). Miscanthus Graziella, Carex brachytricha (other similarly tall-ish grasses), or little bluestem are all good partners that will not overwhelm the dahlias design-wise – but will instead help to support and highlight them.
I want my design work to feature plants that are more and more indicative of a place. Dahlias are such a sumptuous flower – it feels like it must be from some far-off and foreign place. But did you know that dahlias are actually native to Central America? The mountains of Mexico and Guatemala are where they are at home. Dahlia tubers were a food source for native people in these areas. Culturally, it explains why many Mexican artists (Frida Khalo, for example) and other celebrations (specifically, Day of the Dead) often highlight these beautiful blooms.
On Café au Lait Dahlias – From Rodney – (June 2014)
I am probably late to the party, but a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across ‘Café au Lait’ dahlia. Have you grown this cultivar before? Holy cow! The colors are exquisite. The best way to describe them is like… a café au lait. I take my coffee black, but my wife, Carrie, has to have a bit of milk and a spot of cream in her coffee. The color of coffee with milk and cream is dreamy. I remember, as a kid, seeing my parents’ coffee and thinking that it must taste like a caramel square. After one sip, I realized otherwise, although I did like to dip vanilla wafers into their coffee.
There is something about that soft, caramel color that draws us into thinking about sweet smells, gingerbread, and now this magnificent dahlia. Everywhere I read about this plant, people rave about it. The center color of this dinner plate dahlia can range from the aforementioned cafe au lait into shades of tawny peach. Towards the outer parts of the petals, the flowers transform into a near white. Over the course of the summer, these plants can reach a height of nearly 4 feet in height. As summer heats up, these gargantuan flowers are borne on long stalks. This combination of color, large flower, and long stalk makes Dahlia ‘Café au Lait’ a hit for floral designers. The lovely Floret Flower Farm blog has a wonderful post on harvesting these beauties as cut flowers.
Planting Dahlia tubers
As with most dahlias, do not plant the tubers until June, when the soil really warms, making sure to lift the tubers again in the fall before frost. If you live in warmer parts of the country, say USDA zones 8 and higher, then you are probably ok leaving dahlias in the ground. During the winter, store the tubers in a cool, dry spot, making sure they do not freeze or get too wet.
Admittedly, I am starting to go through a dahlia craze phase. These beauties produce enormous flowers in late summer into fall, which serves as the perfect juxtaposition to the wicked winter we are inching our way from. I am dreaming of walking past our Café au Lait dahlias with a cup of coffee from our local coffee shop. A slight fog wrestles with the sun in a yen and yang morning while the dahlia blossoms stand erect like a victory flag. We have conquered winter, and our victory is summer! What better way to celebrate than with a gigantic dahlia flower? I plan on cutting the blossoms and scattering jars of them among the garden’s buildings at CMBG for all to revel in and enjoy.