James Wong's - Homegrown Revolution


Posted on: January 14th, 2013 by James Wong 7 Comments

Believe it or not these blowsy garden flowers were first introduced to our shores not as an ornamental, but as a tasty root veg. Skeptical? Here’s my rookie’s guide to growing, cooking & eating Dahlia ‘yams’.



Before you instantly dismiss the idea of eating Dahlia roots as some kind of hippy-food, bush-tucker gimmick consider this: runner beans were first introduced to the UK for their ornamental flowers, while Dahlias were originally introduced as a promising root veg. It looks like we simply got our horticultural wires crossed!

First domesticated by the Aztecs for their tasty, sweet potato-like roots, Dahlia ‘yams’ were once a staple food as important as the avocados, tomatoes and sweetcorn that they were eaten alongside. Yet being 100% resistant to the dreaded potato blight, super easy to grow & offering up a summer-long display of dazzling flowers to boot, I believe they beat the humble spud hands down for the urban foodie grower that also wants a pretty garden and an easy life from their tiny space.



Sadly, as they have been bred from hundreds of years exclusively for the size and colour of their flowers the flavour of Dahlia ‘yams’ is rather variable, spanning from amazingly sweet and waxy – like a Jersey Royal spud – to perfectly edible but a little watery. On one hand this makes growing Dahlia ‘yams’ a bit of a foodie Russian roulette, but on the other, who knows you may yet discover the world’s tastiest kind in your own back yard!

In my tiny back garden trials – helped immensely by the kind advice of the National Collection of Dahlias – I have discovered that the big ‘Cactus’ flowered types tend to produce the largest, juicest roots with the yellow and red types generally firmer and nuttier than the rest (which I find the most tasty). But there may well be even better strains out there! Give my recipe below a go in the autumn and get back to me on your results. I’d love to hear your views!


Related to Jerusalem artichokes, Dahlia roots have a crisp, refreshing apple-like texture and mild carrot/celery flavour when raw and work great in salads and stir fries. Try them as a substitute for water chestnuts for example or grated in a coleslaw. Their juicy crunch and sweetness means they even work in fruit salads, especially when paired with similar textures like apples.

However my favourite way to eat them is cooked, much like a potato, in soups, stews & rosti. The key here is to slice or grate the roots, then squeeze out some of the excess water to concentrate their lovely nutty flavour and give them a firmer bite.


Crisp, sweet and with a hazelnut-like richness, Dahlia ‘yams’ knock the socks of any old spud in these Eastern European-inspired rosti.

STEP 1 – Dig up your Dahlias when the first hard frosts blacken all their leaves – usually in early November where I live – and give them a good scrub.

For this recipe you will need about 1kg of fresh roots, which roughly equates to those of 1 good sized plant. (You can grow up to 4 per square metre)

N.B. Never eat dry roots straight from a garden centre as they will be chemically treated (not to mention rock hard and dried up). After a season of ‘detoxing’ in the garden, they will be fresh, crisp and perfectly safe to eat.

STEP 2 – Peel the ‘yams’. Unless you are going to cook them straight away, it would be a good idea to dunk them in a bowl of water – just like you would potatoes – to stop them going brown in contact with the air.

 STEP 3- Roughly grate the ‘yams’ with 1 small onion & squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. Then wrap all the shavings in a clean tea towel and twist it to squeeze out as much excess water as possible. This concentrates their flavour and gives them a firmer, meatier texture.

STEP 4 – Combine the Dahlia & onion mixture in a bowl with 2 eggs, 6tbsp of flour & a grating of nutmeg.

 STEP 5 – Season well with salt and pepper and give the whole lot a good mix to combine. You should end up with a thick, chunky ‘dough’ as pictured below.

STEP 6 – Grab small handfuls of the mix and squeeze them between your palms to create little patties – about 10cm in diameter and 1cm thick. Fry them in olive oil over a medium heat in a large frying pan until golden brown.

STEP 7 – Serve with a dollop of cream fraiche, a few slivers of smoked salmon, a wedge of lime and a scattering of dill. Winter blues? What winter blues!

7 Responses

  1. John says:

    OK so dahlia tubers are edible (as are the flowers), but didn’t they fall out of favour because they didn’t taste very nice?

    If there are varieties with a good flavour and decent sized tubers, where can you buy them?

    Has the Suttons seed been selected to produce well flavoured tubers or will it be a bit of a lottery? – and surely the yield in the first year will be rather small?

    Great book – gardening, cookery, and entertainment all at once!


    • James Wong says:

      Thanks for the comment. Great questions! Will answer’em all in my imminent blog post about eating Dahlias….

      • Ian says:

        I have just taken delivery of some dahlia catus. Why does the packet say “CAUTION Do Not Eat Ornamental Bulbs”?

      • James Wong says:

        Very good point! This is because ornamental bulbs are often treated with chemicals that are unsafe for human consumption by suppliers.

        However, once these tubers have grown organically in your garden for a full growing season, particularly if propagated from cuttings, they will be fully ‘detoxed’ and safe to eat.

  2. Superb information, this will help me in my quest to find tasty ones. :-)

    I tried eating my tubers last year and found the flavour perfumey with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Not great. So I can add the following to a ‘Do not eat list’
    I ate ‘Bishop of Aukland’ and ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

    The tubers were of a decent enough size – worth peeling and bothering with but I noticed they lost their firmness and went wrinkled a day or so later (admittedly I had them on the windowsill, not sure if they would have kept better in the fridge.)

    I will try and get hold of the big cactus types as suggested in the article and try them.

  3. Mark and Gaz says:

    Until I read your book recently I hadn’t realised that the tubers were edible. Although I must admit they didnt really appeal! Think I’d rather grow them for the flowers.

    Saying that however the photos above do look good so would like to try them!

  4. Matt says:

    Can you give any info on the yield? Do you get one tuber per dahlia, or do they produce more than one?

    Is it possible to grow in large tubs as you can potatoes? How many per tub?

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