Rare plant of the month – August

Dahlia ‘Little Beeswing’

The plants featured on this blog so far have been truly fascinating, however Dahlia ‘Little Beeswing’ has taken us on a quite a journey and has demonstrated the value of the conservation work that Plant Heritage volunteers are quietly working on through the Plant Exchange and Plant Guardians schemes.

Dahlia ‘Little Beeswing’, has been offered in the Plant Exchange for several years by a National Collection Holder in Cambridgeshire, he having obtained his original plants from Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens in Michigan. Because this bright Dahlia was flowering so beautifully in perfect time for the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, and the plants given were of such lovely quality, it became a the star of the show in the Plant Guardian display.

This is a wonderful example of how a single flower can create a timeline of connections across continents. Former National Collection holder and Dahlia expert David Brown sent a message to say:

I have known Dahlia ‘Little Beeswing’ most my life, my father grew it in his nursery when I was a boy, in those days it was a top Pompom for exhibiting, no longer a Pompom for exhibiting but still around, I found it during my first trip to the USA in 2012,
‘Little Beeswing’ was raised by a UK nursery called Keynes in 1909, registered as a Pompom and received the old Award of Merit in 1909 when on trial, not sure in those days where trials were held, could have been at Dyffryn, in Wales, where Reginald Cory lived, he was President of the National Dahlia Society from 1913 to 1934.’

Like very many Dahlia varieties, even the best ones can disappear over time. Anne Barnard at Rose Cottage Plants often finds delicious new cultivars, that very quickly stop being grown by nurseries who have to follow commercial trends. Plants such as ‘Little Beeswing’ end up only being grown by a few specialist nurseries, which is precisely why it became eligible for the Plant Guardian scheme.

Little Beeswing, Pompon, Keynes 1909 David Brown 2
Photos courtesy of David Brown

‘Little Beeswing’ grows to 3ft, a good cut flower, popular with bees and insects and copes well with dry conditions. It has been shown to tolerate very high summer temperatures in the USA. A member of the Dahlia Society of Georgia (US) wrote that he found ‘Little Beeswing’ to be ‘one of the most heat tolerant dahlias’ – the State of Georgia has a sub-tropical climate, with average summer temperatures of 32 – 33 °C. It has been grown in America for a long time and although raised here, was listed by JK Alexander, Massachusetts in 1938, probably the date of introduction into America.

Dahlia ‘Little Beeswing’ was registered in 1909 by Keynes, Williams and co. of Salisbury, and listed in The Tentative Classified list and International register of Dahlia names 1969, p. 161:

“8c Little Beeswing (Keynes) K-Will 1909 O-R Bic, A.M 1909”

(Keynes) = the raiser

K-Will = Keynes-Williams, the introducer.

1909 = date of introduction or the earliest date which can be attributed to the plant.

O-R Bic = colour classification as an Orange and Red bi-coloured.

A.M. 1909 = Award of Merit granted from the RHS

You’re probably thinking what we thought – why is it classified as 8c (a Cactus Dahlia), isn’t it a Pompom? Sharon McDonald from the RHS International Registrar of Dahlias, explains: ‘The classification in the Register was correct in 1909, when pompom dahlias where Group 8. However, the classification for ‘Little Beeswing’ should have been changed to 7 in 1969 when the Register was published.’ Pompom dahlias are today classified in Group 7.

Keynes, Williams and Co., were exhibiting Dahlias towards the end of the 19th C. winning first prize at the International Horticultural Exhibition at Earls Court in 1892

Extract from the Times of London, Sept 10th 1892:

‘The show of autumn flowers which opened at the International Horticultural Exhibition, Earl’s Court, yesterday, is remarkable for the fine collection of dahlias which have been brought together, the principal interest centring in class S, collection of dahlias of any type, arranged for effect, open to nurserymen. The first prize was awarded to Messrs. Keynes, Williams, and Co. of Salisbury, for an exhibit comprising 2,000 blooms of 100 different varieties and admirably illustrating the object of the competition how easily dahlias may be arranged for decorative effect. Messrs. J.Cheat and Sons, of Crawley, took the second prize, also with a large exhibit……..’

1892 was the year that Buffalo Bill brought his show to Earls Court and there was considerable horticultural interest from America in London by then. John Keynes was a sponsor of the 1866 Exhibition, and judge of the Rose classes, there were no exhibition classes for dahlias at that time.

Around 15 years ago Scott Kunst, at Old House Gardens – Ann Arbor, Michigan, asked in the American Dahlia Society bulletin, if anyone had plants of Dahlia ‘Little Beeswing’. Only one person replied sending his entire stock and a note saying: “in recognition of your efforts to preserve old dahlias their survival now rests in your hand”. (Old House Garden website) This being the provenance of the plant returned to the UK.  The following listings from the American Dahlia Society (ADS) website:

  • Little Beeswing [SK note: no “s” at end of name], 455, B SC Bi O/R, Alx, 1938, AM 1909, probably the pom Little Beeswings
  • Little Beeswings, 552, P Fl, Alx, 1865, brt. scarlet on y. ground, 1.5 x 1.25 inches, 3 feet.

(Alx = JK Alexander of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts)

The International Dahlia Register lists Dahlia ’Little Beeswings’ as:  ‘a synonym of ‘Little Beeswing’, as in the American Dahlia Society Classified List, it is listed as the Keynes cultivar. ‘ (MacDonald)

Scott Kunst wrote to us that ‘1865 is almost 50 years earlier than any other “Alx” dahlia in the Weland (ADS) list, which makes me think it’s a mistake. Maybe it’s a typo for 1965? I’m pretty sure ‘Little Beeswings’ was still offered in US dahlia catalogs in 1965’.

JK Alexander ceased working with Dahlias, following a second fire at their warehouse in 1943 which resulted in the destruction of many tons of dahlia tubers ready for shipment, preferring to move into production of blueberries, (Recollecting Nemasket).

For 1865 to be correct there would have to have been a grower registering varieties at the end of the American civil war.

This from Recollecting Nemasket:  ‘Following the Civil War (1865), Middleborough (Mass.) developed an active horticultural industry [sic ] florists and nurserymen establishing themselves to sell plants and flowers to local residents. Among the plants that these growers raised were dahlias, a flower for which Middleborough would become particularly known…’

Is there a much older Dahlia from a distant grower, brought to England for one of the International Horticultural Exhibitions? We’ll probably never know.


Our thanks go to:

Miriam Jacob for suggesting we use ‘Little Beeswing’ as our rare plant of the month and Alan Briggs and Alan Shipp for kindly sending us details about the plants that came to the Plant Exchange.

Scott Kunst, Founder & Ambassador for Heirlooms – www.oldhousegardens.com

Sharon McDonald, RHS International Registrar (Dahlias & Conifers)

RHS Lindley Library, Wisley (Reference) for sending me the extract from the ‘Tentative Classified list and International register of Dahlia names 1969

Anne and Jack Barnard of Rose Cottage Gardens, for information about the Dahlia and asking David Brown about Little Beeswing on our behalf: www.rosecottageplants.co.uk

Many thanks to David Brown for sharing his knowledge and some of his pictures of ‘Little Beeswing’ to use in our blog

The information about Middleborough, Mass was found at: http://nemasket.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/dahlias.html

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