Colour mutations occur in many species of flowering plant, including Dahlias. Commonly known as a sport, it can happen when either all the flowers on a  plant or a proportion of the blooms are of a different colour to the accepted colour for that variety.

There is no prior planning or preparation that is done by the grower, it is just pure luck and being observant enough to spot it when it occurs. If all the blooms on a dahlia plant are of a different colour to those of the original variety, one of two things has happened, it’s either sported or it’s a mix up and the plant has been wrongly labelled.

When a complete plant sports it usually results in all the cuttings from that tuber being true to the sport when propagated the following season. If however it is just one stem or a percentage of stems that have thrown up different coloured blooms, it is a little more difficult. The sure-fired method of securing a sport from a partially sported plant, is to take green cuttings from the stems of the sported breaks in early to mid-October, root them and keep them growing throughout the winter. This can be achieved by providing artificial light and heat during the dark days of winter, it’s usually the greatly reduced light levels that will kill them.

In most cases if you don’t make this type of effort and just rely on taking cuttings from the original tuber next spring they will probably all revert back to the parent and your sport will be lost to the world, perhaps for ever.

When flowering your sported plants the following  year, do the usual checks, are the blooms of a distinctive colour compared to the parent? does it have the same the foliage? also the blooms should be of a similar formation and size.

Over the years there have been dahlia varieties that have thrown up either bi-coloured blooms or those with a distinct tipping to each petal. Gillwood Zoro, Dave’s Kiss, Cornell’s Way, and Derek’s American were eye-catching and spectacular varieties. Unfortunately it is impossible to secure this type of sport in the long term and they all reverted back to parent.

A few years ago I had a bi-coloured sport occur on a variety called Auroras Kiss, I named the sport Dave’s Kiss and kept this dark red and white miniature ball sport going for a few seasons by over-wintering the cuttings under lights, but it eventually it reverted back to its parent, so that was the end of that.

You don’t have to grow a large number of plants for a sport to suddenly appear. A lady called Eileen Kinvig who lives on the Isle of Man contacted me in 1998 to say that one of her plants of the yellow medium decorative Charlie Two had all white blooms on it and was I interested. The tuber she sent to me propagated well and we built up enough stock to release White Charlie Two onto the market in 2001.  It’s pleasing that it is still a leading exhibition variety 17 years later.

As the raiser of any new variety, whether it be a seedling or sport, you always receive a percentage of sales from the nursery man, Eileen was pleasantly surprised how well we did.

One of the most unfortunate things that can happen with a sport, is that you only have one sported plant, and of course you haven’t got a clue that it has sported at this stage and you give it or sell it to some else. That’s exactly what happened to Les Jackson when he sent a parcel of 6 plants of the orange miniature ball Jomanda to his customer David Houghton in 1999. When the plants flowered the following year, one was covered in bright pink blooms and Mary’s Jomanda was born. The stock was passed on to Halls of Heddon and was released by them in 2002. As most of you will know this cultivar has become one of the all time greats amongst exhibition varieties. Which is great news for David, but not so good for Les.

So when you are wandering around your dahlia plants this summer, keep an eye open for that elusive sport, you never know it could be your lucky day.

Dave Spencer


Back in the 1970’s when I first became a judge this area was predominately male orientated and breaking into ‘their world’ was extremely difficult.  However I am now pleased to report that now there are many more female judges in the twenty-first century and we are, at least, able to compete with the best of them.  This is my story of how I became a judge and some of the barriers which had to be crossed to obtain the recognition that I was as good as anyone else.

Having been very good friends with the late Bert Wiseman and Derek Hewlitt I was asked if, the dahlia exam was to be held locally, would I apply.  As Robert, my husband had already passed his exam, they liked the idea of a husband and wife judging team (there were only two in the NDS book) and also female judges were in single figures.  Many of the older members will know that when Bert and/or Derek asked you to do something,  refusal was not an option.

At the time it was a good idea and I agreed.  As time approached I was notified that the exam would be held at the Hoffman Ball Bearing Co. (RHP) in Chelmsford.  The date was rapidly looming and suddenly I was not sure about this at all.  Exams had always been my weak point and I did not think that an ‘O’ level in typing would not get me very far!!

However with Robert’s help and also that of Terry Clarke when Terry judged our own Halstead show it was a case of ‘it’s too late to cancel now’.  Terry was an excellent tutor and showed me all the finer points of what to look for.

The date of the exam arrived and off I went.

Going into the Hall for the exam the nerves seemed to vanish.  It was good – knowing how sneaky the examiners could be I made sure that there were no artificial supports or too many blooms in the vase etc. etc.  (This practice is still carried on today – some things don’t change!)

When Bert came into the room his first words were “There has only been one pass and it is the lady”.  As I was the only one there (6 men failed) it did take sometime to sink in – but delight did not describe the euphoria felt.

Now came the problem. Was I ever going to be asked to judge at the National.  A number of male judges who had passed the exam after me were invited to judge.  It did come to the point when I decided that enough was enough.  I applied to judge but failed in the attempt.  As a number of people who know me I am not the type of person to give up.  I then approached Bert and Derek – straight to the top if my motto – and asked why I was continually being overlooked.  The following year I was asked to judge.

What an experience.  Judging with Frank Newberry, Dave Kent, Don Bateman and various other top judges they brought out the best in me and gave me the confidence that perhaps I lacked in the beginning.  Unfortunately I have judged with some who do tend to be a bit chauvinistic and assume that I am there to fill in the paperwork if there is not a steward with our team – they picked on the wrong person.

After having a break from National judging I was asked to judge at the National in Wisley in 2013 which I accepted and it was as if I have never been away.

I am very pleased now that women are now readily accepted into what was a male dominated world and with more of us taking and passing the judging exam we can certainly hold our own when it comes from knowing a good bloom from a bad bloom.

Rosemary Porter,  Secretary – Essex Dahlia Society


It’s strange, but when I look back on how the interest and later the hobby of becoming a keen dahlia grower developed, we have to go back to a totally different era and way of life.

Being born during the Second World War in South London in 1941, meant hard times for our family for many years, with periods of bombing, evacuation and food rationing (which lasted into the 1950’s).  The hardship of war and the following years meant that good was extremely hard to come by, which resulted in the Government of that time encouraging the public to grow their own produce, if at all possible.

Our two bedroom maisonette had a small front and back garden, although most of the back garden was taken up by a brick-built air-raid shelter (in which we spent many a cold night).  With only limited space to grow vegetables, my father decided to rent a 10 rod allotment plot (at a cost of 50p per year) from the local council.  Over the next few years we were forced into a diet of large amounts of fresh vegetables and tiny quantities of meat or fish.

There was no junk food temptations in those days, in fact I have never eaten a school dinner in my life, and walked home from school every lunch time for a meal.  Whilst my father spent his spare time on the allotment, my mother became a dab hand at making cakes, pies and preserves.

It was when the war ended in 1945 that local horticultural societies came into prominence, with many people being forced into growing and preserving their own produce anyway, it was a natural progression to take them along to compete at the local society show. Merton Abbey was our local horticultural society of which we became members.  As well as classes for fruit, flowers and a domestic section for the ladies, there were classes for children of various age groups.  By the age of six I was competing in classes for wild flowers, where you gathered what you could from the local fields, staged them in a jam jar, and completed against others of similar age.  By the age of ten I had graduated to the class for miniature garden, using a small piece of mirror as a pond, moss as the lawn, match-sticks as the fence and the tiniest of flowers for the floral display.

It was at the age of twelve that I was allowed to have a small area in the front garden in which to grow.  By this time my father was a regular winner in the vegetable section, whilst my mother was dominant in the domestic classes.  So I started to grow flowers in my little patch.

I remember my father and I took a bus trip out to Vincent Parker’s dahlia nursery in Hinchley Wood, Surrey. It was mid-September and we were spoilt for choice with the magnificent range of dahlias on view.  We finally ordered a few varieties which arrived mid-April the following year.  The five varieties ordered (three plants of each) just fitted into my growing area.  After spending many hours tending my plants through Spring and Summer, I managed to exhibit two vases, one was unplaced and the other finished third.  Most of the prizes were won by a Mr Robbins who lived in the next road to ours.  It was a week or two that that Mr Robbins poked his head over the garden hedge to see what and how I was growing my dahlias.  He was not too impressed in my choice of varieties and suggested that I tried to obtain a pom-pom called Rhonda.  He informed me that this Australian cultivar was not available in the UK.

As luck would have it, we were due to have our one week holiday at a caravan park in Herne Bay, Kent at that time.  By chance the caravan park was flanked by a large general nursery.  When we called into to enquire about obtaining Rhonda, we were relived to hear that, although they did not specialise in dahlias, they knew a specialist nursery that shocked that variety and would forward the plants the following Spring.  We paid for them on the day and the plants duly arrived in late April.  Rhonda was, and still is, a top class show dahlia.  With my six plants producing a superb flush of blooms which not only resulted in me winning the six bloom class at Merton Abbey, but also allowed me to compete and win the guinea (£1.05) first prize at the much larger Wimbledon Town Hall Show.

All three of us started to exhibit at all the local showed in the area, including Pollards Hill, Sutton Common, Mitcham and finally at the Federation of Societies show held in MordenHallPark, where we scored our points for Merton Abbey, against all the other clubs.

My collection of dahlias gradually improved and I became more competitive over the next few years until I discovered girls and served a stint in the Merchant Navy where dahlias were put to one side for a few years.

Dave Spencer

NB. Dave will be writing further articles for the Essex Dahlia Society which shows his further progression to the top exhibitor we know today.


The following is based on recollections of nearly half a century backed up by a few facts gleaned from my collection of Dahlia Annuals going back to 1959. I hope my memory hasn’t let me down too much.

In the decade before the formation of the Essex Dahlia Society a number of new societies began life. In 1962 the Norfolk & Suffolk DS began life. In the 1963 Dahlia Annual it was stated that a new dahlia society had been formed in Southend with the avowed intention to cater for and encourage enthusiasm in the Essex area. Around about that time a new society was created in Surrey. The Kent Dahlia Society followed on many years later.

My first encounter with show dahlias was at a chrysanthemum and dahlia show in ActonTown   Hall in the late fifties. My father in law showed chrysanthemums and, as a result of seeing dahlias on the show bench, I decided to grow some. When I moved to Chelmsford in 1963 I began showing dahlias. Who better to ask advice on growing and exhibiting than Graham Chester whose name was in the list of judges? I then went on to pass the judges exam in 1969.

In those early years there were shows at Thurrock, Southend, Redbridge, Key Glass at Harlow as well as Chelmsford. The big names of those days were Dave Beer, Peter Cleaver, John Sharpe, John Carrington, Chris Kerr, Ted Pavitt, Bill Ham, Heinz Willfang and so on. I remember the early committee meetings of the Essex Dahlia Society being held in a private room in the Compasses Public House, very close to where plant sales, AGMs etc. are now held.

The first Essex Dahlia Society show that I recall was held in conjunction with the show in Thurrock. Subsequently for a couple of years our show was held in a marquee as part of the Harlow Town Show. Many annual shows were held on the RHP premises in Chelmsford. The company was very goof to us and allowed us to store our staging, vases, etc. under their stages in their ballroom where the shows were held. Our committee meetings were also moved to these premises as we were given all accommodation for free.

For years I served on the Executive Council of the NDS and was able to persuade the NDS to hold its judging exam at a school in Chelmsford. A lot of persuasion was necessary to get sufficient local ‘volunteers’ to take the exam. Many said they weren’t ready for it but they more than made up the numbers when many of them passed the exam. That is why Essex has so many names in the list of judges.

For many years we published a magazine called “The Scimitar” which was edited by Gordon Bowley, a solicitor from the Hornchurch area. I took over from Graham Chester as a secretary of the society and worked for many years with Peter Cleaver the chairman. In those days I had seen no reason to have a telephone installed so I kept in touch with Peter from a public telephone box. I would phone him when he was on duty in a London telephone exchange. He would then connect himself directly with the telephone box and we could discuss society matters ad infinitum. Our treasurer for many years was Keith Carlick who worked at RHP. John Pipe also at RHP was also a hard working member of the committee.

I remember judging the Cambridge show with John Pipe on a number of occasions. We got talking to a man who said he would soon be moving to Chelmsford. Some months later I called on him at his new home to ask him if he would like to join our committee. Since then he and his wife have worked very hard for the society. Their names are Margaret and John Wills.

In the mid sixties Terry Clarke of Braintris Nurseries catered exclusively for dahlia exhibitors. He grew many plants on his nursery to exhibition standard of so that exhibitors could gauge their exhibition potential. He maintained a very high standard of health of stock. Many successful new varieties emanated from this nursery.

There are too many varieties of the time to list here but I remember being quite successful in the early days with Newby, Drakenburg, Rotterdam, Doris Day, Townley Class, Dedham, Klankstad Kerkrade and Jocondo. Then later, to great excitement, came Je Maintiendrai which was going to be the giant decorative of the future. Since then, of course many new varieties have come and gone.

To finish I have to say what a honour it is to have been awarded the Affiliated Societies Medal by the Essex Dahlia Society and to have held the office of President for some years and eventually to become a Life Vice President.

John Cox


In 1991, after several years of travelling the 25 miles from my home in Stratford, East London, to tend the dahlias on an allotment in Higham, Kent, we decided it was time to move home.  The general idea was to be bearer to my work in Tilbury Docks and have a large enough garden in which to grow the plants.

After viewing over 100 houses in various parts of Essex, we finally settled for a detached bungalow in the tiny village of Fobbing (near Stanford-le-Hope), which was just seven miles from work and had a 400ft v 60ft back garden.  Although the garden was landscaped with a couple of ponds, fruit trees, etc, it was mainly lawned over.

After 19 years of growing in the beautifully fertile, well-drained Kentish loam, it was a rude awakening and I plunged my spade into the very heavy Essex clay for the first time.  We have lived in Fobbing for 22 years now and the term “you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse” springs to mind.

Over the years vast quantities of mushroom compost, horse manure and tons of grit and sharp sand have been incorporated, which has undoubtedly improved the texture out of all recognition.  The truth is that you can get good results on all types of soil if you put the effort in, but when I look back to the allotment, it was all so easy.

About 50% of the lawned area was sprayed over with Roundup to kill off the grass and then covered with two trailer loads of mushroom compost and then hand dug.  A few weeks before planting, the plot was rotovated over, using a powerful Howard gen rotovator, turning in a liberal dressing of bone meal at the same time.

As it was February when we moved, it was all a bit of a rush to erect a greenhouse and propagate the tubers that had been brought with us, and have the plot fully prepared for planting in late May.  A covered area and windbreaks were erected as the season progressed.

The results were pretty good, all considered.  Highlights were winning the Clara Lawson Brown Cup (six vases of Medium Semi-Cactus) at the National Show in Westminster.  The Kent Dahlia Society held their 25th Anniversary Show that year and I was pleased to win the special 25-bloom class at the Whitbread Hop Farm.

It was a year later that I took the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy at the age of 51, receiving a lump sum and pension from day one.  With the mortgage paid up and more time on my hands, I set to and had two 25ft greenhouses built, with the aim of starting up a mail order dahlia business in 1993.

Being fairly well known in the dahlia world helped to get my little venture off to a flying start.  This continued for the next 11 years, with extremely busy periods each spring and pleasant summers and autumns growing and showing the blooms up and down the country.

In 1993 my wife, Carmen, and I decided to represent our club (Kent Dahlia Society) at the Canadian International Chrysanthemum and Dahlia Show, held in Toronto. It was quite a task to design and make a coffin-like plywood box, so that the blooms could travel safely in water-filled containers from HeathrowAirport to the show venue, some 3,000 miles away.

Several British dahlia societies took up the challenge, with North Somerset C&D, Bristol C&D, Northumberland & Durham C&D and Monklands Dahlia Society all doing well.

However, it was our own Kent Dahlia Society that managed to win two of the four international classes.  Two vases of Small Cactus or Semi-Cactus with Hillcrest and two cases of Medium Decoratives with BJ Beauty.  The final piece of judging on the day was for the best vase of dahlias in show, which was to be awarded the Bikini World Championship Trophy.  With a large tense crowd gathered around the judges, we won it with one of the vases of BJ Beauty.

These international shows and national shows held in Canada and the United States are great occasions.  As well as the actual flower show, a banquet, lectures, visits to growers plots and nurseries are all part of the festivities.  On this occasion, a trip was organised to take a boat trip on the Maid Of the Mist around the base of Niagara Falls.  Although we all got the thoroughly drenched, it was a memorable event that we will never forget.

Over the years we have visited dahlia societies, shows and growers plots in America, Australia and New Zealand, being made most welcome wherever we have travelled and enjoyed every minute of it.

I am 72 years of age now and have been growing dahlias since the age of 12.  The aim is to compete at the highest level for as long as possible.  As I have managed to stage a Terry Clarke Trophy exhibit at our National show every year since its introduction in 1975, the aim is to keep on flying the flag, whilst I am able.

Dave Spencer



Having been quite a keen dahlia grower as a teenager, there was a period when other interests took over. It was in 1967 after my girlfriend and I had married the previous year that I grew my first dahlia plants for some time. Although the garden attached to our semi-detached house in Hingham, Kent only had a small garden (50ft x 25ft). I was determined to start growing a few dahlias again.

For the first couple of seasons my plants were bought from various nurseries each year. It was at the end of 1968 that a 10ft x 6ft Alton greenhouse was purchased. As my father was a bricklayer, he set to in building me a coldframe of a similar size. This would allow me to propagate and harden off my own plants in future years.

Although I pinched a bit more lawn and grew some plants in the coldframe throughout the summer, my total planting was still only around 40 plants. By this time I was showing at the local shows, with only a few minor awards to show for my efforts. As well as becoming a member of both Kent AND Chatham societies, I also joined the National Dahlia Society. It was 1969 that I first entered the national show held in the RHS halls in Westminster. Although I only managed to find to vases to stage, the 3 blooms of white medium decorative were pretty good – or so I thought.

The problem of being a novice and new to competing sat a national show, is that you know nobody and nobody knows you, so I got my head down and worked away on my blooms. As I was just finishing off, an elderly gentleman came over to see how it was going. With great pride I showed him my vase of “Sterling Silver”, which in my view was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He had a bit of a wonky eye and when he studied the blooms more closely, he cocked his head like a chicken about to devour a worm. He agreed that they were quite nice and explained that if one blooms wasn’t falling away on one side, the centres were better matched and that they had a bit more depth, they would be perfect!

His name was Joe Hawes and of course he was quite right, as both my vases finished unplaced in a highly competitive novice section (between 20 – 30 vases in each class, in those days), it was an opportunity to see the various types and cultivars that were available.

What became apparent as we viewed the major championship classes, was that a lot of these people, were not only specialist dahlia growers, but specialists in one particular shape and size. I decided there and then that I had to specialise and was particularly drawn to the medium decorative.

For the 1970 and 1971 seasons I grew just medium decorative in the garden, 4 varieties, 10 plants each, but the quality was not great and the dream of producing and exhibit in the “Stephen Treseder Cup” (4 vase medium decorative championship), was an impossible one.

It was late autumn of 1971 that I took over a derelict 10 rod allotment, behind the Working Mans Club in Higham. Although it was waist high in weeds and brambles, the soil itself looked good. It was a painstaking job in clearing the ground of every piece of couch grass, bellbind and nettles, but in early spring everything had been cleared and a good quality of manure dug in, it was ready to plant.

After admiring the exhibits in the “Treseder Cup” for the last 3 years, I planted out 5 varieties of medium decorative, 12 plants of each. Nothing new, just the most reliable available, which were: Sterling Silver, Breckland Joy, Pink Joy, Foxfore, First Lady. I had no covers or windbreaks with which to protect the blooms, so it was a case of hoping for kind weather at flowering time.

One of the Kent Dahlia Society members at that time was Ted Carter, who just happened to be the current holder of the “Treseder Cup”. Each year our Society arranged a visit to a leading grower’s plot at flowering time. The visit that year was to Teds 20 rod of allotments in Eltham.

Ted grew 500 giant and large decorative and 300 medium decorative and when we visited his plot 10 days before the National, the plot was so absolutely frightening to a relatively small grower like me, that I almost gave up there and then. The massive covered area encapsulated all 800 plants, which were in a strong flush of bloom.

As people began to drift away at the end of the evening, I started to look more closely at the 3 vases of medium (6 varieties, 50 plants each). Compared to my plants that had mostly coloured buds with just a few just starting to flick back, his were magnificent, with about 40% of the plants in full bloom, whilst a further 40% were at the ½ – ½ open stage, with the other 20% still to come.

It was more luck than judgement, but I hit it just right and won both the “Treseder Cup” and 3 vases of medium decorative.  Ted had lost over 80% of his blooms to early flowering, but still managed second place in the main class, with another Kent member, Charlie Mason in third.

Over the following years the number of plants increased, covers and windbreaks erected, but above all the plot turned out to be a wonderful fertile piece of ground that produced superb quality blooms of all classifications.  Over the 19 years that I grew on the allotment my standards became extremely high, which meant that many National and regional championships were won, including a further seven “Treseder Cups”.

It was in 1991 that we moved to a detached bungalow in the village of Fobbing, Essex which possessed a 400ft v 60ft back garden, so the turning of a beautiful landscaped garden into a dahlia factory began.

Dave Spencer