Thursday, November 14, 2019

John Maynard Keynes and the Dahlia

By Judith Taylor

Possibly the greatest economist of modern times, John Maynard Keynes (1883 - 1946), was born with a silver dahlia in his mouth and grew up in very affluent circumstances. He was the elder son of John Neville Keynes, an economist at Pembroke College, Cambridge and a lecturer in moral sciences at the university. Keynes’ mother, Florence Ada, née Brown, was intellectually and socially active, ultimately becoming the mayor of the city of Cambridge. Most dons had only been allowed to marry since 1871 but at some colleges it was later than that.

John Maynard Keynes

Professor Keynes grew up in Salisbury where his father, also John Keynes, owned a very successful nursery. At one point the father was mayor of the city. The basis of his fortune lay with the dahlia. Keynes had a very good sense of what was popular and profitable. Dahlias became both quite early after their introduction into England and remained so during his lifetime. A semi-tropical flower from Mexico seems like a very fragile basis for wealth and when John Maynard grew up he examined his grandfather’s business affairs very closely.

Neville Keynes
He found that his grandfather had taken the profits from the nursery and invested  shrewdly in land. His investments happened to coincide with the growth of the railways and many of his holdings were in strategic parts of the country where the railways had to     buy land for their tracks. With that under his belt John Keynes also went into banking.

The result was that after the grandfather died and the business was wound up his son Neville inherited an annual income of £800 a year, very serious money indeed. It allowed him to live comfortably and educate his sons at the best schools. John Maynard’s younger brother Geoffrey was a very innovative and distinguished thoracic surgeon. Their sister, Margaret, did what was expected of her by marrying a first class chap, Archibald HiIl.

Like at least two other gorgeous plants from Mexico, the poinsettia and the marigold, the history of the dahlia in England comes down to us shimmering with myth. The facts are a little more prosaic but it is hard to resist a story that the empress Josephine of France had a monopoly on the dahlia and as soon as someone wanted to grow it elsewhere threw one of her alarming tantrums. She threatened to tear out all the plants and burn them. Alas, that is not true.

The first European to record the flower we now know as the dahlia was Francisco Hernandez, a physician/botanist dispatched to Mexico in 1570 by Phillip II of Spain to collect as many useful plants as he could. The local people, Aztecs, showed him three varieties of the plant they called “acocotli, cocoxochitl and acocoxochitl", ie “water pipe”, ”hollow-stem flower” and “water pipe flower”. Each had a specific use. The Aztecs ate the edible bulbs. They used the hollow stem ones as pipes. The flowers did not interest them particularly. They were pretty but that was all. This was all included in Hernandez’s report together with line drawings.

Live seed did not reach Europe until 1789.  Abbé Cavanilles at the Madrid Botanical Garden planted it and everyone was stunned by the tall handsome flowers. He shared the seed with colleagues in Germany and named it Dahlia for Anders Dahl, a Swedish botanist who worked in Berlin. The German scientists sent seed to Paris and from Paris it reached England in 1798.

It shows the power of collegiality among plantsmen that in that apocalyptic decade they were still able to stay in touch with their “enemies” and exchange seed. “Mrs Fraser of Sloane Square” was credited in 1804 with growing the first dahlias in England, Dahlia coccinea, the red dahlia.

Dahlia coccinea

The field was rapidly enlarged by new finds. Alexander von Humboldt sent seed of species he found in the Mexican mountains, much shorter in height and thus more manageable. In London the Horticultural Society sent its own man, Karl Hartweg, to find even more new species. All this allowed the often fanatical breeders to come up with many more colours than just red.

At that stage dahlias had some of the mystique of seventeenth century tulips in The Netherlands or orchids for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 1840s a rich iron master in Birmingham might pay two hundred guineas for a unique tuber such as ‘Yellow Defiance’. That was at the time when a kitchen maid in a big house was lucky to earn ten pounds a year.

One of those breeders was John Keynes, 1805 -1878. As noted above he was a very astute businessman who had not wanted to go into his father’s brush factory. He enjoyed gardening as a youth, even winning a prize for the pinks he had grown. Dahlias caught his imagination. He began working with them in 1833. In 1841 he held a one man show of his new cultivars at Stonehenge. It was a sellout. When a winner came up he focused almost entirely on propagating that and did not waste time or effort on other less valuable plants.

Even after John Keynes died the firm continued to introduce new cultivars, suggesting they had a professional hybridizer.

At that time Stonehenge was privately owned and had not yet come into its own as the unique archaeological treasure it is considered to be now. Here is the earliest known picture of it, painted by Lucas de Heere in the mid 1570s.

While John Keynes used it as a setting for his dahlias the local people casually used it for many humdrum purposes.

The flower could have double petals, come in many colours, be tall or short, even miniature but for several decades the general impression of them en masse was “’footballs on stalks”. By the end of the nineteenth century the gardening world was ready for new shapes. The plant explorers obliged. D. juariezii also came from Mexico but had graceful recurved petals and was the first of the “cactus dahlias”.

Other British nurserymen began to develop and grow new kinds of dahlias too. Charles Turner in Slough is best known for his roses and carnations but he and Keynes collaborated on setting up the first National Dahlia Show in London in 1858. The National Dahlia Society was not formed until 1882 but dahlias were on show at the Great exhibition.

The flowers are now part of the standard gardening repertoire of any amateur and the corms are easily available at any garden centre. They make a very bold statement and remain dramatic, not unlike John Maynard Keynes himself. He was an undergraduate at Kings College, Cambridge and became a fellow there too. Keynes was a member of the secretive Apostles at the university, most of its members becoming famous later in life. Many of them were gay and he seemed to be so too yet in 1925 he married a Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, one of Serge Diaghileff’s teenage company, Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo from the 1920s and remained very happy with her for the rest of his life. His former lover Duncan Grant was best man.

John Maynard Keynes was 6 feet 7 inches tall. Lopokova was just about 5 feet. He played an important role in the negotiations after the first world war and wrote a seminal book, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” (1936), explaining why governments had to supply money to replace the failing demand of the impoverished pubic in times of crisis. That was the only way to get factories rolling again and business running.

Keynes also seemed to have inherited his grandfather’s head for business. He built up a private fortune and invested in art among other things. Oddly enough he failed to foresee the Great Depression of 1929 and lost most of his money only to recoup it later. It is a great pity he left no children. His ideas had helped millions of people around the world.


Skidelsky, Robert  1983   John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883 – 1920  vol 1
London      Picador 

Taylor, Judith M.  2014   Visions of Loveliness: great flower breeders of the past
Athens, Ohio            Ohio University Press


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

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