Heirloom Dahlias

At the turn of the 19th century, Helena Rutherfurd Ely, avid gardener, author and founding member of the Garden Club of America, built extensive gardens surrounding her country house at Meadowburn Farm in the Warwick Valley on the border of New York and New Jersey. Ely tended the six acres of formal and picking gardens with the help of her dedicated young gardener, Albert Furman, whom she trained after bringing him over from her dairy farm across the road. By the early 1900’s, her gardens became nationally known for their unparalleled beauty, and inspired thousands of home gardens across the country.

Dahlias were just one of many plants that Ely grew, and with cannas and bay laurel, were the only plants that merited the trouble and fuss of winter storage. In her three books published in the early 1900’s, Ely writes of the wonderful variation in dahlias – the cactus, the quilled, the fancy. She loved to grow dahlias from seeds, delighting in the surprising results of new colors. Each fall, the tubers were dug up and stored safely on an earthen bank in the basement of Ely’s house, and each spring they were planted again in the cutting garden. Those same tubers have been stored in just the same way by the Meadowburn gardeners to this day.

Meadowburn was sold in 1930, a decade following Mrs. Ely’s death. Henry and Vincenza ‘Byba’ Coster, the new owners, continued to employ Furman as the gardener. Byba’s love for fresh cut flowers and Furman’s stubborn penchant for tradition meant that very little was changed in the garden. When Furman died in 1948, his son, Albert Furman Jr., stepped in as gardener. Furman Jr. had worked beside his father in the garden since the day he could first pull a weed, and like his father, kept steadfast to the gardening practices passed down from Ely. Each spring the dahlias were set out in freshly tilled rows and arranged just as they had been the year before. Every dahlia was carefully tended – only a few shoots left to grow, each stalk nicely tied to a cedar stake cut from the woods, and the soil gently cultivated.

In 1975 the Costers gifted Meadowburn to their nephew C.H. Coster Gerard and his young family. At this time, the majority of the picking gardens were replaced with great grassy lawns, but the dahlia beds were kept. As the garden and its gardener aged, the horticultural traditions and the Furmans’ love for the dahlias stayed true.

Dahlia tubers in the root cellar.

All records of the dahlia names were lost after Furman Jr.’s death. For the past two years, heirloom dahlia experts have been called upon to help identify the seven heirloom cultivars that remain, but with such little documentation and so many cultivars, matching the Meadowburn dahlias to an exact variety has been difficult. Only one variety, Dahlia ‘Jane Cowl’ has been identified. With the help of the American Dahlia Society, the remaining six cultivars have been assigned new names based on Meadowburn’s history.

“My uncle always took special care of the dahlias, I think because he knew that they were so important to his father”, says Walter DeVries, Furman Jr.’s nephew who was raised by Furman Jr. as his son. “He always used to say that they were the same dahlias that his father would plant with Mrs. Ely. I think that is why the dahlia beds were saved when the rest of the picking garden was removed”. Carrying forward in time this unique legacy, DeVries returned to Meadowburn to take over as the gardener just before Furman Jr. passed in 2004. To this day Ely’s dahlias bloom in a 150-foot allee of colorful glory: blooms of bobbing magenta, sky-high yellow, luscious peach, and antique vermillion.

Looking for tips on how to care for your dahlias? Learn more with our dahlia care guide.

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Dahlia ‘Helena Rutherfurd Ely’

An exquisite informal decorative dahlia in hues of deep yellow to bronze. Blooms measure 8”-10”, on sturdy stems. Grows taller than 6’. Named for the creator of the gardens at Meadowburn Farm – gardener, writer, and founding member of the Garden Club of America.

Dahlia ‘Meadowburn Albert Furman’

A bright yellow cactus dahlia, and a prolific bloomer. Flowers 6″-8″ on sturdy stems. Grows to 6′ tall. Named for two generations of Meadowburn gardeners, who collectively cared for the gardens for over 120 years.

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Dahlia ‘Jane Cowl’

Historic match made! Our ‘Jane Cowl’ dahlias have been growing at Meadowburn likely since the cultivar was first released in 1928. This is a stunning informal decorative dahlia with luscious blooms measuring 8″-10″, and sometimes even 12″, on sturdy stems. Deep peach centers open up to glowing orange, petals dusted with gold. Grows to 6′ tall.

Dahlia ‘Meadowburn Old Tweet’

A cheerful, antique peony flowered dahlia with 4″-6″ golden bronze blossoms. Some plants grow up to 9′ tall! Named for the Scottish gardener just down Meadowburn Road at Maple Grange who taught Helena Rutherfurd Ely to garden as a child.

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Dahlia ‘Meadowburn Byba Vincenza’

A most unique show dahlia, featuring bobbing 4″ blooms on slender stems, in hues of magenta with streaks of vermilion down the center of petals. Foliage is dark green and highly serrated. Grows to 5′ tall. Named for Vincenza “Byba” Coster, who owned the gardens with her husband from 1930-1975. Byba loved the dahlias.

Dahlia ‘Meadowburn Clara Helen’

A bicolor dahlia, in magenta fading to white. Blossoms 4″-6″, with variation in coloring on each plant, and possibly another Ely seedling. Grows up to 4′ tall. Named for two of the grandchildren of Coster and Alison Gerard.

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Dahlia ‘Meadowburn Danny Bea’

An elegant antique peony flowered dahlia with 4″ blooms in hues of magenta often with a streak of vermillion in the center of the petal. This is possibly an Ely seedling. Grows up to 3′ tall. Named for two of the grandchildren of Coster and Alison Gerard.

Photographs by Joshua Scott Photography and Quill Teal-Sullivan

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