Heirloom dahlia has a rich family history

Posted on: November 15, 2018 | Written By: Doug Oster | Comments

“I’m a daddy’s girl,” Wanda Gerber, 64, says proudly. Her father passed away in 2012, but he lives on in her garden with plants he grew and saved for decades. The plants are all special, but the dahlia he cared for for years from his grandmother holds a special place in her heart. Gerber has a particularly vivid recollection of the colorful flowers in full bloom as a little girl.

The dahlia on the left was grown by Wanda Gerber's great grandmother, Mary Beatty.

Both of these dahlias can from the same plant, it’s a variety grown by Wanda Gerber’s great grandmother, Mary Beatty.


Milton Beatty holds his daughter Wanda (Beatty) Gerber is his arms. Gerber spent as much time as possible with her father in the garden. She grows many of his plants and also her great grandmother's dahlia.

Milton Beatty holds his daughter Wanda (Beatty) Gerber is his arms. Gerber spent as much time as possible with her father in the garden. She grows many of his plants and also her great grandmother’s dahlia.

“I got stung by a bumblebee running through them,” she says with a laugh. “I got it right in the ear; it was horrible. That’s actually my first memory of those dahlias. I can still remember the sound and I was young.”
These antique dahlias can reach eight feet tall and are covered with purple flowers accentuated with thick white stripes.
The gardening traditions of the family have been passed down for generations and continue to be moved along by her. It was her father that inspired Gerber’s love of plants.
“I was the kid that followed him around everywhere, every time he gardened,” she recalls. “My grandson is like that too. I tell him all the time, ‘This was pap pap’s, this was great grandma’s.’”
Her father, Milton Beatty, taught her the importance of these garden family heirlooms. She remembers how thrilled he was when local art students would come and use his dahlias as subjects for their paintings.
“He was a much better gardener than me, he grew everything,” Gerber says. “As soon as you could work the soil, he was gardening.”
She’s inherited the gardening gene that’s so strong in her family.
“I have to have my hands in the dirt,” she says. “I don’t wear gloves. It just makes me happy.”
Just as she had followed her father through the garden learning, he did the same with his grandmother, Mary Beatty.
“He talked about being six years old helping her to plant her flower garden and vegetable garden,” she remembers. “He always tagged along behind her.”
She grows many of the family plants including huge yellow ‘King Alfred’ daffodils along with his pink and white daffs and an old-fashioned fragrant double with greenish, yellow flowers. She believes it was passed down from her great grandmother. Whenever Beatty would divide his daffodils, her father would share the bulbs. Gerber is also growing his tiny white flowering snowdrops in her Monroeville garden. When the daffodils in particular emerge, she’s overjoyed.
“It gives me hope,” Gerber says. “Winter is particularly hard for me. I don’t do well with gray skies. A blue sky and a daffodil blooming, I just love them.”

Mary Beatty is the great grandmohter of Wanda Gerber. Gerber grows a dahlia which was also grown by Beatty.

Mary Beatty is the great grandmohter of Wanda Gerber. Gerber grows a dahlia which was also grown by Beatty.

There are lots of other plants she’s growing with a special connection to her father, like Gladiolus, Christmas cactus and an amazing ‘New Dawn’ rose he propagated for her from cuttings. The original rose covered the front of his Craftsman style house.
“When I got my own house, he was thrilled and he shared just about everything,” Gerber says.
The large striped dahlia from her great grandmother needs special care from year to year. Gerber’s father instructed her exactly how to store and save the tender tubers over the winter. When a hard frost kills the foliage, she cuts the stems of the plant off and then digs the tubers. Gerber gently shakes the soil off and lets them dry for a few hours.
“They don’t like to be disturbed,” she adds. “They like to be a big clump.”
Next they are placed into uncovered cardboard produce boxes from the grocery store surrounded by shredded newspaper. The boxes are stored on the inside wall of her garage. The boxes let air in, as her father taught her the tubers need to breathe.
“If something happened to them, I would just die,” she says.
They emerge when they are ready, she adds, usually poking up out of the boxes in mid-May. It’s a wonderful seasonal treat when they sprout.
“I’m ready, so ready,” she says laughing. “It’s awesome, it’s like, you’re back,” she adds as if talking to the dahlias.
The tradition will continue through her children, who know the importance of the flowers. She expressed the special meaning the blooms of the dahlia have for her, “so I can have a part of them,” Gerber says, “as a remembrance.”
She’s also passing along her love of the garden to her 2-year-old grandson, Brennan Bentley, in the same manner her father and great grandmother did.
“Anytime I’m outside in the garden, he’s with me,” she says happily. “He loves to dig, he weeds; it’s the cutest thing. He knows what to pull and what not to pull.”
As she reminisces about the dahlia, Gerber is unable to hold back the tears, sharing the special place these flowers were laid when her father passed away.
“I took those dahlias that he gave me and put them in his coffin,” she says crying. “Just for him to have the little bit of us, to go with him.”

Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@535mediallc.com. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com.

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Doug Oster is manager and editor of Everybody Gardens with a passion for gardening and a love of sharing is experiences with other gardeners. You will also find Doug’s gardening contributions in the Tribune-Review each week. He’s an Emmy Award winning producer, television host and writer. Oster is co-host of The Organic Gardeners Radio show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. Oster’s Outstanding Documentary Emmy was awarded for Gardens of Pennsylvania, a one hour special he conceived and produced for the PBS affiliate WQED. Doug appears every Thursday morning on KDKA-TV’s Pittsburgh Today live at 9 a.m. “Gardening is fun, he says, enjoy every day spent outside tending vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees.”