Café au Lait dahlia

Café au Lait is known as the “Queen of Dahlias.” It’s hard to deny how gorgeous this flower is!

The Café au Lait dahlia is a popular variety of large dinner plate dahlia with creamy pink petals. Café au Lait dahlia flowers generally have a bloom size of 8-10″ wide. The creamy petals often have hints of soft pink and coffee-like beige.

These warm region perennials typically bloom from midsummer through to the first frost on large plants that grow up to about 4′ high and 2′ across in the garden. The Café au Lait dahlia is classified as an Informal Decorative type (Classification Number 2104).

Café au lait dahlia

Café au Lait dahlia basics

Café au Lait is the most popular variety of dinner plate dahlia. With its pale cream-pink petals and large diameter, it’s a favorite in the garden and of floral designers. There are also three more brightly-colored sports of this dahlia variety, as follows:

  • Café au Lait – Creamy white with light pink & peach tones
  • Café au Lait Royal – Light pink with creamy tones
  • Café au Lait Rosé – Lush bright pink
  • Café au Lait Twist – Striped light and dark pink petals

Café au Lait dahlias are classified as medium informal decorative pink dahlias. While flowers tend to be 6-8″ wide, it is not uncommon for the fully double blooms to reach a large size of 8-10″ wide in good growing conditions and when the side buds are removed. The incredible size and attractive creamy white pink color make this variety a top pick for summer-cut flower arrangements and bridal bouquets.

The dahlia is a large tuberous rooted plant that typically grows 3-4 feet high and 2 feet wide in the garden. They are native to Mexico and Central America but have been cultivated in Europe since the early 1800s. Café au Lait is thought to have been bred by M. G. & D. Eveleens Maarse of the Netherlands in the 1960s and has since become incredibly popular.

This dahlia variety does best in full sun and well-drained soil. The plants require frequent watering in hot weather but are otherwise low-maintenance. Trim off spent flower heads to encourage flowering and keep the plants attractive in the garden. Dahlias are perennial plants in Zones 8-11 but are not cold-hardy in Zones 7 and below. Gardeners in these climates must dig up tubers and store them in above-freezing storage for winter.

“Of all the dahlias I’ve grown, ‘Café au Lait’ by far is the most notable. She is lovingly referred to as the queen of dahlias, and it’s easy to see why she has such a loyal and wide-reaching fan club. Many of the dinner plate-size dahlias can be fragile and a little difficult to work with. ‘Café au Lait”, however, if pinched early on, produces long, strong stems that hold up really well in large arrangements.”

Dahlia Sizes, Floret Farm’s Discovering Dahlias: A Guide to Growing and Arranging Magnificent Blooms, by Erin Benzakein

Buying Café au Lait dahlia plants

Café au lait dahlias are sold as either tubers (bulb-like roots) or as potted plants. Potted plants are typically available for purchase starting in late April or early May. Tubers can be ordered year-round but are generally shipped only in early spring during dormancy.

Potted plants are generally more expensive than tubers but have the advantage of already being started and ready to plant out in the garden. Potted plants are a good option for gardeners who want to get a jump start on the season or who live in climates with a short growing season.

Planting cafe au lait dahlia roots

When to plant dahlias

Café au Lait dahlia tubers can be planted directly in the garden after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Outdoor soil should be about 60°F (15.6°C) or higher for optimal growth. Dahlia tubers are generally planted in the garden around the same time as tomato plants. These plants are quite sensitive to cold weather (like tomatoes), so avoid rushing the season if nighttime temperatures are approaching freezing. May is usually the best month to plant dahlias outdoors in temperate climates.

For the earliest dahlia blooms, plant the tubers indoors in pots about one month before the average last frost date in your local area. The potted plant can be transplanted into your garden once the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed in the spring. Planting a potted plant started indoors usually means the plant begins to flower in mid-July instead of in August (for tubers planted outdoors).

Where to plant dahlias

The best planting location for Café au Lait dahlias is an area in full sun with rich soil that drains out excess water easily. Ideally, the soil will have a neutral or slightly acidic pH.

While dahlias tend to thrive when planted in the ground or in raised beds, you can also grow these dahlias in large pots (like whisky barrels) in potting mix. Look for a container that’s at least one foot deep and 1-2 feet wide (or larger). Specialty growers sometimes grow these flowers in hoop houses that protect the plants from rain, wind, and hail. Flowers grown in hoop houses usually also flower quite early, sometimes in early July.

While Café au Lait dahlias don’t need full sun to survive, they do need full sun to thrive and bloom. The plants require at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day to produce the best show of flowers. Dahlias grown in shade (less than 4 hours of direct sunlight per day) may not flower. That said, some afternoon shade may be beneficial in hot climates (Zones 8-12).

How to plant dahlias

Café au Lait dahlias are easy to plant. Simply dig a hole that’s large enough to accommodate the tuber (or root ball if you’re planting a potted plant). The hole should be about 6-8 inches deep and twice as wide as the tuber or clump of tubers. One optional step is to soak dahlia tubers in fresh water for about an hour immediately prior to planting to hydrate the root and encourage sprouting.

Place the dahlia tuber into the hole with the “eye” facing upwards towards the sky if possible. The plant stem will grow up out of the eye. If you can’t identify the eye, just lay it on its side at the bottom of the hole. Mark the planting spot with a label identifying the plant as Café au Lait.

If you’re planting more than one tuber, space the tubers about 2-3 feet apart in all directions. This will give the plants plenty of room to spread as the foliage can become quite large by the end of the summer. They generally reach about 4′ tall and 2′ wide. If space is an issue, the plants can be spaced a foot apart, but expect more maintenance during the growing season.

Add a stake before, during, or immediately after planting. Tomato stakes work well for growing dahlias (you can also use a tomato cage).

Water the dahlia deeply after planting and then wait for sprouts to appear above the ground before starting to water regularly.

Café au lait dahlias

Caring for Café au Lait dahlia plants

Café au Lait dahlia plants are not hard to grow and are easy to care for once they have been planted. The most important factor is consistent watering during the heat of summer. It is also important to protect the plant from slugs and other garden pests.

Watering dahlias in the garden

Start to water your Café au Lait plants once the green sprouts appear above the soil. Don’t overwater young dahlia plants as the roots can rot in the soil.

Dahlias need about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of water per week during the growing season, whether from rain or irrigation. Water at the base of the plant to keep the leaves and stem as dry as possible. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses are the best options for watering dahlias. Too much moisture on the foliage can lead to fungal diseases.

Don’t let the soil around your dahlia plants dry out completely as this can cause the plant to wilt and the flowers to drop off. Mulching with compost or hardwood mulch can help the soil maintain moisture levels. However, don’t keep the soil too wet or muddy as this can lead to root rot. Allow the top inch (2.5 cm) of soil to dry out before watering again. Large dahlia plants with deeper roots may only need water 1-2 times per week

Pinching dahlia plants for bigger blooms on strong stems

Dinner plate dahlias need strong stems to hold up those giant flowers. Pinching the stems of the young plants can encourage plants to grow a higher number of strong stems.

Wait until plants are about 10″-12″ tall. Snip off the top few inches with sharp pruners. These plants are generally too thick to be pinched with fingers. The plant will then grow more branches below where it has been cut. These branches tend to be thinner and stronger (not hollow) than if plants weren’t pinched.

Fertilizing Café au lait dahlias

Café au lait dahlia plants can be fed with high-quality organic fertilizer once they reach about 12″ (30 cm) tall.

Fertilize your dahlia plants about every 2-4 weeks during the growing season with a water-soluble fertilizer. You can also use a slow-release fertilizer at planting time and then once per month during the growing season. Do not overfeed the plants and avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers from midsummer onwards.

Staking Café au Lait dahlia plants

Staking Café au lait dahlia plants is very similar to staking tomato plants. Add the stake during planting or as soon as possible after planting. Then use soft fabric or twine to gently tie the main stems to the stake at intervals about every foot up the stake as the plant grows.

Cafe au lait dahlia flowers

Café au Lait dahlia blooming season

Café au Lait dahlias typically start blooming in blooms from mid-July through the end of the growing season (typically October or the first fall frost in most cooler areas).

Dahlias will bloom until frost. Dahlia plant foliage is killed by hard frost or freezing temperatures. Dig up the tubers and store them in a cool indoor location for planting next year.

Protecting Café au Lait dahlia blooms

Gardeners and flower farmers sometimes take extra measures to protect their gorgeous Café au Lait dahlia flowers. This includes manually picking off pests like Japanese beetles (which eat the flowers) or covering each individual bloom with a silk bag to keep insects away. Natural pesticides like insecticidal soap are also common, as are traps for Japanese beetles and other pests.

Picking Café au Lait dahlias

Picking Café au Lait dahlia flowers encourages the plants to grow more flowers. Cut each flower as soon as it opens for the longest bud life. If leaving the blooms on the plant, be sure to remove the entire stem when deadheading after the flower fades.

Three buds usually develop on each branch. Keep the big first one in the middle and remove the other two on the sides. This keeps the plant from getting too heavy and the remaining blooms each get more energy and become larger.

Floral arranging with Café au Lait dahlias

Café au Lait dahlias have a cut flower vase life of about 3-7 days. The vase life of these flowers is longer if the stems are given a fresh diagonal cut and clean water each day.

“This is our most requested variety. The massive blooms resemble pastel silk pillows. Popular with brides and wedding designers, the flowers are the most unusual shade of pale creamy blush.”

Dahlia Sizes, Floret Farm’s Discovering Dahlias: A Guide to Growing and Arranging Magnificent Blooms, by Erin Benzakein
Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a quintessential Canadian gardener. An engineer by trade, she tends to an ever-expanding collection of plants. In her world, laughter blooms as freely as her flowers, and every plant is raised with a dash of Canadian grit.

Mary Jane is a certified Master Gardener and also holds a Permaculture Design Certificate. She's also a proud mom of three, teaching her little sprouts the crucial difference between a garden friend and foe.

When she's not playing in the dirt, Mary Jane revels in her love for Taylor Swift, Gilmore Girls, ice hockey, and the surprisingly soothing sounds of bluegrass covers of classic hip-hop songs. She invites you to join her garden party, a place where you can share in the joy of growing and where every day is a new opportunity to find the perfect spot for yet another plant.

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