Dahlias in Vienna’s Botanical Gardens: The Flower of War, Food & Medicine

Dahlias in Vienna’s Botanical Gardens: The Flower of War, Food & Medicine

In Search of Dahlias, Edible Bulbs, in the 3rd District of Vienna.

Dahlias are beloved around the world as decorative flowers. But did you know that they are valued not just for their beauty but also as culinary delicacies? Both the tubers and the petals can be used in cooking. Our last excursion to the Botanical Gardens of the University of Vienna helped us learn more about these edibles.

Read on to discover why this flower was once called the flower of war and how it was originally prized as a source of food and medicine. We will also reveal where to buy Dahlias both for decorative and edible purposes. If you are feeling a little adventurous,  you can try out a couple of our recipes and learn to incorporate these edibles into your diet.

The Botanical Gardens of Vienna

Wheelbarrow on the grounds of the Botanical Gardens.
Wheelbarrow on the grounds of the Botanical Gardens.

There are times when the orderly grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace Gardens are too symmetrical, and a walk through the Viennese Woods seems too sprawling. That is the time to head to the Botanical Gardens in Vienna’s 3rd district. This oasis, located next to the Belvedere Palace, is owned and managed by the University of Vienna, and is the perfect place to go when you want to connect with nature without leaving the city. It is also a great place to educate yourself on rare plants both exotic and local.

The grounds are immaculate however not as manicured as those of Schönbrunn. As a result, it feels a bit more like walking through your backyard, granted an extremely large backyard. For instance, if you are inclined to hug trees, you can feel free to do so here. My personal favorite is the California Redwood growing near the bamboo bed.

There is always a lot of activity going on here, so it is easy to learn a few new gardening tricks from the crew. On our last visit this autumn, we watched gardeners and students of the Vienna Botanical University, as they busily put flowers to bed, eager to tuck bulbs, both edible and inedible, in before the first winter snowfall arrived. Everything is a little more casual here, more down-to-earth, more accessible.

Bountiful Beds Filled with Edible Tubers

Perennials are the bones of the landscape that is to say they provide the gardens with a solid and familiar structure. On the other hand, rotating annuals turn each visit into a bit of an adventure. You might run into an old friend displaying its show-stopping beauty in full bloom. Or turn around and be surprised to discover a new botanical friend curiously popping out of the earth. Or, as in our case, come across a new variety of edible tubers.

The beds that run along the Jacquingasse abound with edibles. Herbs and spices such as basil, sage, coriander, and mint scent the air. I never can resist nibbling on a couple of the Nasturtium blossoms. Pumpkins, corn, as well as different tubers, grow in the beds too. Some, like the potato, have become common and are now anchored in Austrian cuisine. Others, like the dahlia, are not as well known and hardly regarded as a culinary delicacy by the Western European palette.

Friendly and Multicultural Crew

Speaking with crew member.
Speaking with a crew member.

We were strolling through the gardens on our way to see the annual display of dahlias when we noticed a young man from the crew. He was cleaning roots out of the back of a utility truck. Curious, we went up, introduced ourselves, and asked what he was doing. The young man, originally from Nigeria, and a student of Botany at the University of Vienna, said the edible tubers he was preparing were for dinner.

This particular kind of edible tuber happened to be native to parts of Africa. It is common to the everyday diet in Nigeria. As it turned out, this young Nigerian was the only gardener on the crew who knew how to cook these edible tubers. So the lot had fallen to him. We asked how the tubers tasted. He said it was hard to describe. But that they were delicious and better than potatoes.

We had questions: Can you eat the tubers raw? How do you cook them? Are they eaten as a main course or a side dish? Our culinary curiosity about this new edible discovery grew by the second.  Unfortunately, time was not on our side. He had to run and we were left with our questions. Sadly, we never did find out the plant’s name either in English or German.

As much as we enjoyed expanding our knowledge on edibles, we still felt a sense of loss. That is to say, we were yearning to know what culinary pleasures we might be missing. We were astounded as to how much can be foraged and surprised at how little we knew. However, we decided to turn our thoughts away from the endless possibilities of sustainable gardening and instead focus on the original purpose of our visit, the dahlias.

The Dahlia: a Controversial Flower

Pink and white double dahlia.
Pink and white double dahlia.

Every autumn, dahlias grace the central beds adjacent to the Belvedere. They fill the sunken garden with all shapes and vibrant bursts of color. Originally from Mexico and prized there as the national flower, the dahlia traveled far to Spain, France, Germany, to England, and then it conquered the world, which is fitting for a flower once associated with war.

It is safe to say that the dahlia is a controversial flower. Its Rubenesque voluptuous beauty polarizes and causes extreme reactions. Some adore its audaciousness. Others find it repulsive and distasteful, as this quote below testifies.

Some people find dahlias distasteful. Their fulsome blooms, top-heavy with an excess of petals, are considered vulgar….the conspicuous flaunting of so much provocative beauty can evoke a sense of foreboding. Perhaps the flower, nurtured and loved by tragic Empress Josephine, who traded on her looks but lost Napoleon, is destined to be suffused forever with her jealous melancholy. Certainly, the brutal destruction of a sophisticated civilization paved the way for the dahlia’s introduction to the West. Oh, the troubles it’s seen!

– Strangers in the Garden. The Secret Lives of Our Favorite Flowers. by Andrew Smith

The Dahlia Known as the Flower of War

Yellow tipped orange spiked dahlia.
Yellow-tipped orange spiked dahlia.

In the Aztec world, gardening was considered a revered pastime pursued and prized by the nobility. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador, described tropical gardens at Huaxtepec under Moctezuma I “the best that I have ever seen in all my life.” He was particularly impressed by the rows and rows of dahlias. a flower that was associated with the sun and referred to as the War Flower. Spanish botanist Francisco Hernandez recounted a widespread legend about the dahlia flower which was passed on to him by Aztec gardeners at Huaxtepec.

The Aztec Earth Goddess, Serpent Woman, used to visit an eagle to gain knowledge of the sky gods. On one of her visits, she met a rabbit holding a dahlia with eight red rays in its mouth. The god told her to pierce the flower with  a sharp spike of agave or maguey leaf and hold both to her heart breast all night. The next morning she delivered a fulllly grown son. Uizilopochti was born fully grown and fully armed with strength for war and a thirst for blood which he had gained from the flower’s eight blood-red rays.

-Aztec Legend

The Sacred Dahlia

To the Aztecs, the dahlia was considered sacred. The Aztec name for the flower is acocotli or cocoxochitl (depending on your source), which means water pipe in classical Nahuatl. A fitting name if you consider that the flowers in Emperor Montezuma’s tropical gardens at Huaxtepec grew a spectacular thirty feet tall and had blossoms ten inches in diameter. The stems were hollow, at least three inches in diameter, and used for transporting water or even as a source of the water itself. Dahlias were planted with great ceremony in the Aztec empire. The plants arrived wrapped in burlap and elaborately decorated mantles. Priests were called upon to make animal sacrifices. They spilled blood drawn from the sacrificial animal into the earth and sometimes from their very ears as well to prepare a proper bed for this most sacred and beloved of flowers.

Edible and Medicinal Properties of Dahlia Bulbs

The Aztecs consumed dahlias as food and as medicine. An Aztec herbal, the Badianus manuscript of 1582, details the use of the dahlia to treat urinary disorders. The skin of these tubers has natural antibiotic properties and was used to treat many other illnesses as well.

In addition, the inulin in the tubers can be converted into a natural sweetener. These and many other medicinal plants, grown at Huaxtepec, were key to a huge trade in what today we might call ‘health products’

Cooking with Dahlia Bulbs and Flowers

Dahlias blooming in the central garden.
Dahlias blooming in the central garden.

The early European dahlia breeders were mainly interested in using the plant as an edible tuber. However, they did not catch on as a potato substitute or even as cattle feed in Europe. Today, the dahlia remains of culinary interest to cooks who maintain a kitchen garden.

Most edible varieties are bland, but the older, heirloom varieties can taste like spicy apples, carrots, or celery root. They can taste bitter when fresh but If you store them, the inulin will convert to fructose making them sweeter. The crunchy tubers add a subtle flavor to salads and are ingredients in a quick bread similar to zucchini bread.

You can eat Dahlia tubers raw or cooked. Treat them like you would yams or Jerusalem artichokes. It is best to peel them, as the flavor of the skin is often unpleasant. The types of dahlia tubers that are best for eating are usually about the size of boiling potatoes. Some are short and rounded. Others are relatively long and thin. The tubers are a rich source of potassium with 100 grams coming in at 1110mg, providing you with 32% of the recommended daily value.

Recipes to Try

Lemonade with Dahlias

100 grams of dahlia tuber
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons of honey
2 drops of peppermint extract
3 1/2 cups of cold water
Dahlia petals to taste

How to prepare:

First, wash and peel the dahlia tuber well and cut it into small pieces to make it easier to blend.
Next, place the dahlia tuber, lemon juice, honey, and mint in the blender cup. Blend until smooth.
Finally, add the mixture to a pitcher with the water, ice, and dahlia petals.
Enjoy chilled.

More Recipes to try

You can find more recipes to try here, including an easy recipe for dahlia bread as a substitute for zucchini bread and a unique and tasty salad.

How to Prepare Dahlia Tubers for Cooking

Here is a great video from Markus Kobelt founder of Lubera Nursery, a great source for edible dahlia tubers.

Meanings Associated with the Dahlia

The dahlia once held religious connotations and even today represents one who stands strong in his/her sacred values. However, it now more commonly indicates strong emotion and a wild spirit.

The Victorians saw the dahlia as a symbol of a lasting bond and commitment between two people. Today, in some traditions, it is considered a birth flower for August and a November birth flower in others. In some cultures, it represents diversity because each petal fits seamlessly into the whole head. Other meanings associated with dahlias are elegance, inner strength, creativity, change, and dignity.

If you are interested in learning more about the Dahlia and the myths associated with it, this is a thorough source on the topic: Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology The Dahlia in History.

Modern-Day Dahlias

Dahlia garden in Botanical Gardens with Belvedere in background
Dahlia garden in Botanical Gardens with Belvedere in background

Once it reached the old world, the flower which was known to the Aztecs as cocoxochitl was newly dubbed: dahlia. Allegedly, this new arrival was named in honor of the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, who was a student of the famous Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.

But the story seems unlikely since Linnaeus died before the flower was renamed.  As a result, the origins of the name dahlia remain unclear to date.

However, what is clear, is that the dahlia has become a beloved garden plant throughout Europe. Its blossoms grace many homes throughout the summer and into the late autumn before these sun-loving blooms succumb to frost.

After 200 years of culture, selective breeding, and hybridizing, the dahlia now has one of the largest arrays of forms, colors, and sizes of any flower grown. Nearly 50,000 named dahlia varieties have been developed, listed, and registered in more than 570 individual classes in this past century alone!

Scientific Classification of Dahlia

  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Genus: Dahlia
  • Family: Asteraceae
  • Order: Asterales
  • Native to Mexico
  • Light Requirement: Full sunlight
  • Soil Requirement: Good drainage and moist soil
  • Flowering Season: Summer (Springtime planting required, April and May are best)
  • USDA Hardiness Zone*: 8
  • Diseases: Powdery mildew, Root rot, Crown rot, Grey mold, Verticillium wilt, Dahlia smut, Phytophthora, Mosaic Virus
  • Pests to Avoid: Mite, Slug, Snail, Earwig, Aphids, Leaf Hopper, Red Spider Mite

*Hardiness Zone Converter: Information On Hardiness Zones Outside U.S.

Where to Buy Dahlias if you live in Austria

Dahlias can transform a garden landscape with little effort. The tubers and also bulbs are readily available as early as autumn. But the best time to plant them is in spring. You can buy them from any local garden center, such as Bellaflora or Obi. However, I prefer to order all my plants online from local growers.

Here are a few suggestions:

Starkl Nursery

Starkl nursery covers all my planting needs: high-quality goods, friendly service, and reliable delivery. I place my order early on. Place an early order and expect shipment when the weather is conducive to planting. This can vary slightly from year to year, but it assures you plant at the right time. Orders are delivered well packed and ready to set in the earth. If you prefer to buy in person, they also have well-stocked stores in Eastern Austria. You can find the exact locations on their website.

If you live in or around Vienna, it is well worth taking the time to visit one of their nurseries either in Aschbach Markt near Amstetten or in Frauenhofen near Tulln.  If you want to take time to walk through and picnic in their lavish gardens, make sure to plan for a whole day. Make sure to check out the videos, and photo galleries on their website. And while you are there have a look at their planting tips. Unfortunately, the website is only in German but it is a wealth of information.


Lubera is a great online source for all things edible. They are located in Switzerland but ship internationally. Take your time to look around their website. It is chock-full with information. They also have a youtube channel and a podcast. And, the founder Markus Kobelt is on a mission to make dahlia tubers a household word in European cuisine.

Dahlien-Kultur DI. Gerhard Wirth

Dahlienwirth specializes in dahlias. They are in Vienna’s 18th district.  It is well worth visiting them in September or October to see the dahlias in full bloom. They also offer a delivery service, just make sure to place your orders early. Go to their website for tips on growing and caring for dahlias. The website is only available in German.

Leschetitzkygasse 11, 1180 Vienna

Peter’s Gärtnerei

Peter’s Gärtnerei also specializes in dahlias. They have two nurseries according to season. In spring, you can visit the nursery in Lower Austria near Amstetten. It is open from April to May. In autumn, from August to October, you can enjoy their show-stopping display of dahlias in full bloom at their nursery located in Upper Austria between Salzburg and Vienna. Both nurseries are closed over the summer and winter months. You can pre-order tubers and bulbs and buy them directly from the nursery in Windischgarten in October. Or choose to have them delivered to your home as early as November. The nursery in Windischgarten also sells cut flowers both retail and wholesale. More details, tips, and pictures are available on their website. It is only available in German.

   Peter’s Gärtnerei: SPRING NURSERY                                    Peter’s Gärtnerei: AUTUMN NURSERY
   Thurnham 28, 4563 Micheldorf                                                 Kirchfeldstraße 6, 4580 Windischgarsten


Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna

You can learn more about the Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna by clicking the above link. The garden is a haven for critically endangered species, exotic and native plants. The meadows and groves grow wild to provide a natural habitat for wild animals living in the inner city. It is also a sanctuary for city dwellers seeking rest and renewal. They regularly hold events. One of the most spectacular is the annual rare plant fair.

Botanical Gardens of the University of Vienna
Rennweg 14, 1030 Vienna

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