About 100 years ago, two nurseries in Zionsville were having a duel, of sorts, over which one could produce the best dahlias.
Dahlias were incredibly popular in the early 20th century and their mail order catalogs sold tubers not just to local gardeners, but to gardeners throughout the country. The catalogs offered the tubers for 50 cents to $2.50. Back then, $2.50 was quite a sum.
Zionsville became known as one of the places to consider when purchasing dahlia tubers, said Mark Zelonis, who has researched his town’s historic role in the dahlia world, as a director of the Zionsville Cultural District.
Happenstance 22 years ago
“I just happened upon the story, hearing about it some 22 years ago,” said Zelonis, an expert on historic landscapes.
Sisters Jennie and Adah Tudor operated Tudor Gardens at what is now Fifth and Ash streets in Zionsville. Their mail order catalogs from the 1920s are filed at the National Archives and Records in Washington, D.C., Zelonis said.
Practically next door was Parkway Gardens, owned by Fred Gresh, at what’s now the Zionsville Nature Center. Most of his dahlias were grown in fields where the Eagle Elementary School now stands.
The fledgling Zionsville Lions Club promoted the growing town as Dahlia City, primarily because of the popularity of Gresh and the Tudors, Zelonis said.
The growers exhibited many dahlias and won dozens of awards at the Indiana State Fair, for several decades. The big wins for Jennie Tudor and Gresh came at 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Hybrids from Jennie, who served as the first president of the Indiana Dahlia Association, won six first prizes. However, the American Dahlia Society awarded Gresh the coveted Gold Medal Award for his hybrid ‘Zion’s Pride’, a large, lemon yellow flower, Zelonis said. Unfortunately, the dahlia is not longer in cultivation.
The dahlia, which can have flowers the size of a nickel to a dinner plant, lost favor among gardeners. However, in the last few years, as growing cut flowers has become more popular, interest in dahlias is on the rise. This year the National Garden Bureau declared 2019 The Year of the Dahlia.
Dahlia interest on uptick
Zelonis has led a local resurgence of this frost tender plant that’s a part of the town’s history. The town already has a Dahlia Drive on the south side, and at least one mechanical box has been painted with a dahlia. He’s encouraging residents and businesses to plant dahlias in their pots or landscapes.
With donations from Boone County Master Gardeners and the Zionsville Garden Club, the Cultural District promoted dahlias and gave away at least 50 tubers at the town’s first farmers market this summer.
The public is invited to bring cuttings from their gardens to the Zionsville Farmers Market, 8 to 11 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 14, in the Main Street parking lot adjacent to The Friendly Tavern. This is not a contest and dahlias won’t be judge, Zelonis said. Rather, it’s an opportunity to appreciate the beauty, forms and colors of dahlias.
Zelonis, who now conducts tours in the U.S. and overseas through Cultural Excursions/Interlude Tours, admitted he has a personal love of dahlias. They were the wedding flowers harvested from a nearby farm in upstate New York, when he married Sally Zelonis.