Dahlia Legacy Project

By the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers

Dahlia Legacy Profile

Phil Traff was the most important and influential visionary in Northwest dahlia history. His primary legacy was his constant quest for innovation. Many of his ideas have permanently changed the face of Northwest organizations, shows, and judging.

Phil was born in Aberdeen, WA and pretty much grew up among dahlias. His mother, Jennie (yes, the Jennie for which the dahlia is named) grew dahlias but wasn’t yet an exhibitor. Phil and Jennie continued to grow dahlias, and Phil’s share of the garden kept increasing. Finally, when Phil was 15, they decided to enter their first show – the Kitsap County show held at the fairgrounds. They entered six shows that first year – and learned a lot about exhibiting. Within a couple of years, they had transitioned from taking flowers to shows in the family car with the back seat removed to taking them in a rented van.

Phil’s first major win was with Klankstad Kerkrade (best small in show), the summer after his sophomore year in high school. Soon after, he won three consecutive best-in-show trophies at Kitsap County – all with Edna C. He jokingly told the story about Jennie holding a basket on her lap all the way to the 1967 National Show in Seattle. This was after his freshman year in college; that basket went on to be judged best in show.

After graduating from high school in 1966, Phil attended the University of Washington. He majored in biology and completed the coursework necessary for a teaching certificate. After Phil graduated, he got a job with the Lake Washington School District and taught middle school. Living in Kirkland, he had to find a place to grow dahlias, so introduced himself to Emil Buddin of Brookside Dahlia Garden. A great friendship developed, and he grew dahlias at Emil’s home for several years. He did well there, winning 48 trophies in 1970, 60 in 1972, and 53 in 1973.

While in Kirkland, he lived in a rented apartment with his huge orange cat, Albert. The author has great memories of being at Phil’s place with son, Robbie (Robert Walker) who was always along for the ride. Rob was fascinated with the “people in the wall,” as you could sometimes hear the neighbors talking in the adjacent apartment. When we would get home, Rob would tell his mother that Phil had people living in the wall.

Bitten by the Dahlia Bug

Phil soon decided that he needed more room for dahlias and in 1978 started looking for property. He settled on a small farm in Sumner, WA – but continued to teach in Kirkland, a commute that would be impossible in today’s traffic. His new home had an outbuilding that was perfect for tuber storage, seedling and cutting propagation, and before long, a commercial business. It was from this small farm that many of what today’s northwest growers take for granted first originated: The Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers, the Federation’s Dahlia Annual complete with combined show schedules, two Federation workshops per year, the challenge flower, the Federation flower of the year, the Seattle Flower Show, Dahlias of Today, Dahlias: A Monthly Guide, and more.

Eventually the commute from Sumner to Kirkland got tiresome, and Phil took a teaching job with a school district near Sumner. And then “progress” came to Phil’s neighborhood. The Christmas tree farm next door became a used semi-truck lot; shortly other neighboring properties turned commercial. Phil saw the writing on the wall, sold his place, and purchased a five-acre farm a few miles away. The house on his new property needed to be replaced, and the local fire department gladly used it as a training tool, starting it on fire and putting it out several times until it was completely gone. Phil brought in a travel trailer to live in (he hated it) while his new home was built. Unfortunately, he was only to live in his new home a few months before he went into hospice care near the end of his life. Phil died in 1992 at age 43.

Local Dahlia Club Leadership

Phil was most involved with three local dahlia clubs. Along with his mother and her friend, Stella Jarvis, he founded the Grays Harbor Dahlia Society. After his move to Kirkland, he joined the Seattle Dahlia Society and served as both secretary and president. And then in 1976 he and some fellow rabble-rousers founded the Puget Sound Dahlia Association. He served as the first PSDA president (for four years) and then again from 1985 until the time of his death. In addition, he served as secretary of the Pacific Northwest Dahlia Conference and later, after he conceived of and helped found the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers, he served as it’s representative to the American Dahlia Society board of directors.

Exhibition & Showmanship

It was at the dahlia shows that Phil met many of the people who would have an influence on his dahlia life. Ann and Walt Teul early on taught Phil the importance of staging. Vern and Joyce Boswell taught Phil showmanship. While Phil had been growing dahlias a couple of years longer than the Boswells, they had previous exhibition experience with birds and knew tricks of the trade. It was the Boswells who showed Phil how to take cuttings. As a side note, it was the Boswells who said serious exhibitors should grow 100 dahlias: ten each of ten varieties – and care for them meticulously. But there was no way Phil could ever limit himself to 100 dahlias.

Phil’s favorite dahlia was Edna C. and he was friends with Paul and Edna Comstock, the originators. Paul was a role model as he had also started growing dahlias early in his life and always made time available for Phil. Helen McNay from the Washington State Dahlia Society was a great influence. When Phil introduced this author to Helen in the 1970s it was with the disclaimer that “she knows everything.” Helen had been secretary of WSDS for about thirty years and was a great source of information for Phil when he was organizing the Puget Sound Dahlia Association.

Like most exhibitors, Phil and Jennie were soon clerking for judging teams. And like most exhibitors, they soon decided that they, too, would like to become judges. There wasn’t the formal, structured judging program that now exists in the Federation. Leo Miller, who started the judging program in the Northwest, sat them down in Stella Jarvis’ living room and put on a one-day judging school. Progression through the judging ranks was not as structured as it is now, but nonetheless Phil advanced to senior judge by age 27, at that time the youngest person promoted to senior judge in the US. At an international dahlia show in Toronto, he and several others were invited to take the British judging exam, a notoriously difficult test. Phil was the only US judge to pass. As you would expect, Phil was involved with designing the Federation judging program as it now exists. Phil and a few others sat in Gordon Leroux’s basement and devised the requirements to become candidate, accredited, and senior judges. The author’s son, Robbie, always tagging along, spent quality time with Gordy and his extensive rock collection. Phil, of course, was one of the original instructors in the Federation program.


Arguably no one has had a greater influence on dahlia growing in the Northwest than Phil Traff. Beyond his involvement in the formation of two local dahlia clubs (he was the force behind the formation of the Puget Sound Dahlia Association), he was instrumental in the formation and structure of the Federation of Northwest Dahlia growers. He thought a short, concise how-to book for new growers – and for the general public – was needed. Dahlias: A Monthly Guide was the result. Now in its fourth edition, tens of thousands have been sold. He then thought a yearly periodical was needed and Dahlias of Today was born. Always one to find talent – and put it to work – Phil tapped Harold Miller to lead the charge on both books. But they were Phil’s ideas, and it was Phil behind the scenes editing every word, choosing every photograph, and noting every minor detail. “Wait. Isn’t the space after that period a little big?”

And that was a feature you had to get used to with Phil. Everything had to be exact – down to the nit-pickiest thing. After judging, if the teams didn’t follow instructions and rearrange their sections to look perfect, Phil came along and did it. When setting up the show, the table covers had to be just right. “Wait. I think that side is a half inch lower than the other.” When the author and son, Colin, are setting up the head table for the PSDA/SDS show, we still step back to decide if it would meet with Phil Traff’s approval. Colin was only ten years old when Phil died, but he still remembers.

But as George H. W. Bush would have said, it was “the vision thing” that set Phil apart from everyone else. Back in the day, you would line up every blue ribbon in a section and then pick the section champ from that group. Phil came up with the idea of awarding best-of-type ribbons, so the judging team had only to pick from a few blooms to find the section champ. Judging team makeup used to be a big secret until “the announcements” at the judging meetings. When this author first took over creating the PSDA judging teams about 1980, Phil told me team makeup shouldn’t be a big secret. Print a list and make it available when exhibitors get to the show. And tell them to organize the sections they will judge and get everything in order prior to judging. Now virtually every club follows that model. But, of course, Phil had to review the judging teams. Ever the perfectionist, he always had a “suggested” move or two. “That judge couldn’t find a giant dahlia with both hands and a flashlight. Have them judge miniatures. And whatever you do, don’t let them judge the head table.”

Years ago, judging teams sent up every section champion bloom to a special “team of experts” who would select the head table winner from the three sections. Phil couldn’t see why we should do that. If the team could pick the sections, they could sure pick from among those three. We changed the process at PSDA shows and told the teams to only send up the winner. There was uncertainty at first: “Are you sure we’re worthy to pick something for the head table?” We told them if they can pick the sections, who better than to pick the best? They know all the flaws of those three section winners. Now every club follows that model.

And, oh, the innovative classes. Phil was always coming up with ideas to make the shows more interesting to the public – who just might sign up to become members. The Federation flower of the year was such a class. Preferably a northwest origination, the idea was to get everyone growing it and get a ton of blooms to make a big splash at the shows. I well remember sitting in meetings at Phil’s first Sumner home, debating various cultivars, and then voting on the next flower of the year. Similarly, PSDA initiated the challenge flower, a Phil innovation. Exhibitors would pay $10 to enter the class, enter as many blooms as they would like, and all the entry fees would go back to the exhibitors as prizes. The result, of course, was a giant display of a single variety strategically placed near the entrance to the show hall – and show visitors oohing and aahing.

Then there was the dahlia spectacular. Phil would coerce a PSDA member who had flower arranging talents into creating a massive display incorporating hundreds of dahlia blooms. This was truly a spectacular. The purpose? Have a great display to “wow” the show visitors but also have them guess the number of blooms – and fill out an entry tag with their name and address as well as their guess. When the display was deconstructed at the conclusion of the show the blooms were duly counted and a winner was chosen. The winner got a box of dahlias from Phil Traff (who else?). And PSDA had hundreds of names of gardeners who each got a postcard the following spring with information about the upcoming tuber sale. I well remember creating massive databases of these names using AppleWorks on my shiny new Apple IIe. Good times.

Other Traff innovations included creating the AA class; Grays Harbor Dahlia Society was the first to include that size in its show schedule. Up until that time, the largest class was A-size – of which giants were a part. The Pacific Northwest Dahlia Conference adopted the class in 1972; the ADS in 1975. Always one to travel to National shows and beyond, Phil came back from a trip to British shows enchanted with the waterlily form. Waterlily dahlias were grown a bit here, but they were exhibited as formal decs – and didn’t win. Phil got a pot root of Christopher Taylor from England, gave it to yours truly to make cuttings, and we soon had fifty plants to distribute. Christopher Taylor had good form, a nice red color, and was head and shoulders above any waterlilies being exhibited. Soon he had a waterlily class developed – all blooms thrown together in one class. But it didn’t take long for there to be separate color classes for waterlilies. It was the vision thing.

Almost the same thing happened with laciniated dahlias. Somehow, he struck up a writing relationship with Cyril Higgo of South Africa. This is letter writing with paper, IBM Selectric typewriter, and stamps; no emails, no texting, no cell phones. Cyril had been hybridizing fimbriated (laciniated) dahlias exclusively and had some good ones. It wasn’t long before Phil was introducing Higgo varieties and selling Higgo seeds. And, of course, moving the laciniated section from one class with a mishmash of all colors to their own section with all color classes. Like waterlilies, there had been laciniated varieties grown, but they were exhibited in the classes they most closely approximated – often ID or SC. And, of course, they didn’t win.

While others may have been listed as show chairs, Phil was always the de facto PSDA show chairman. Phil kept talking about his vision of a Seattle Flower Show, something the rest of us had a hard time getting our heads around. But he kept at it, and soon the PSDA pulled it off: the PSDA dahlia show became part of the overall Seattle Flower Show held at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Phil coerced other flower groups to join the fun along with commercial exhibits of all things gardening. Commercial dahlia growers had their arms twisted until they agreed to put in massive displays – and pay for the privilege. We advertised heavily, got media attention, and charged a hefty admission – and had people lined up around the block to get in. When the exhibition hall was closed for remodeling PSDA, like other clubs, drifted off to a mall for its show. In the meantime, a for-profit spring gardening show came to town, making redundant any attempt by PSDA to resurrect the Seattle Flower Show.

Ever the thinker and promoter, Phil decided we needed world-class speakers at events. Cyril Higgo was invited to a show to talk laciniated dahlias – and he brought a very nice watercolor by a well-known South African artist that was awarded for the best laciniated in show. It’s hanging in my living room, thank you. He brought Dave Spencer and Tom Bebbington from England in the early 1980s to speak. Keith Hammett from New Zealand was here by Traff invitation. And who did Phil think to bring to speak at a monthly meeting when we held an annual tuber sale? None other than Paul and Edna Comstock. We flew them up from San Diego and they were wonderful; Paul’s presentation was excellent. The meeting, of course, was packed and sales were robust. Phil was always promoting and always thinking.

Like virtually every Northwest dahlia exhibitor, Phil was a prolific hybridizer. His early hits were giants when he was just a kid in his 20s: Wildman, Vantage, and Conquistador. Pocrates, a white miniature ball, is still shown and is still competitive. Mary Jennie was a dark pink miniature semi-cactus that was a sport of Mary Jo. We think he just wanted to prove he could save a sport, but it was a nice flower. A pretty pink and yellow waterlily named for Pat Fearey who did a tremendous amount of pro bono marketing for Phil’s various events is considered his last named variety introduced after his passing. His best introduction, of course, was his last. Jennie, a light blend laciniated beauty that is named for his mom.

Phil decided to get into commercial growing, and before he became ill, thought he would transition from teaching to commercial dahlia growing. Along with selling tubers, he realized that some serious money could be made by catering to wholesale flower sellers. He talked with them and learned what they wanted – and planted part of his property specifically for them. He would plant in multiples of forty: 40 of this variety, maybe 80 of this one, and so on. For the wholesale cut flower trade there were limited varieties – they didn’t want a large selection. They wanted smallish blooms (small waterlilies were great), long stems, certain colors, and limited or no foliage. He would have a truckload of blooms to deliver with hundreds of flowers, and maybe only five varieties. The visionary did his homework, devised a plan, was meticulous in presentation, and had success.

Were there conflicts? You bet. The young, brash kid from the west coast didn’t mesh well with the ADS leadership that was made up entirely of east coast members who liked things the way they were. Phil was simply too far ahead of his time for the entrenched leadership. When the Federation was formed, it took several years before the ADS even recognized the organization and gave Phil, the duly elected ADS Federation representative, a seat at the table.

And then it all came to a sudden end. Phil became ill and there was no cure. Those of us who knew Phil commiserate and feel like we were cheated. The dahlia community only had him for about 25 years. Where would the finest mind in the dahlia world have taken us? Wherever he took us, it would have been quite a ride. Would he have irritated some of the leaders with his ideas and his reluctance to leave things as they are? You bet. That would have made it even more fun.

Written by Roger Walker March 2022

Hall of Fame

2010 Nominee 

Easily the seminal figure in Northwest dahlia culture, Phil exemplified the highest standards of commitment, volunteerism, and innovation found in those rare individuals who manage career, business, and their passionate pursuit of perfection in a chosen hobby. Never one to shrink from controversy, Phil invigorated the organizational structure of American dahlia enthusiasts by proposing rule changes, engaging in detailed analyses, and by setting forth standards that we are still striving to meet. Instrumental in founding the Puget Sound Dahlia Association in 1976, he also was a leading figure in creating the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers, in establishing current judging workshops and educational efforts, outreach and marketing initiatives, and in developing show guidelines that moved dahlia exhibition from a limited hobbyist event to large-scale public arenas. 

C. Phillip Traff was born in 1948 into a dahlia-growing family. His mother Jennie encouraged the youngster to accompany her to dahlia shows in his home town of Aberdeen and the greater Puget Sound area. By the time he was 15, Phil was already showing blooms successfully. In 1964, Phil won Best in Show at Kitsap (prior to his junior year in high school), and he proved to be a resourceful and exacting exhibitor. While attending the University of Washington, his pursuit of a teaching certificate was matched by his dogged devotion to better dahlia culture. He traveled widely up and down the West Coast and struck up friendships with the likes of Jack Almand, Paul Comstock, and Henry White. His broad interest in all things dahlia also took him around the US to attend shows and ADS meetings. International relationships were cemented in exchanges with British, Australian, and New Zealand growers. Few growers in those days failed to acknowledge Phil’s prodigious energy and zest for challenging the status quo. 

After philosophical differences led him and others to separate from their home club, Phil guided the establishment of the Puget Sound Dahlia Association in 1976 as an active sponsor of dahlia culture with an emphasis on education, creativity, seedlings, and dahlia publications. His teaching career curtailed year-round dahlia efforts only slightly: Phil Traff could be counted on to call you at all hours of day or night to bounce an idea around or to ‘volunteer’ you for club needs. His tour de force approach never lagged. Serving as actual or de facto PSDA president for the next 15 years, he was the principal driver for better shows, more skilled judges, and, ultimately, increased club membership with an active core of committed functionaries and a lively series of culture presentations. He was responsible for (and bankrolled a considerable portion of) the 1984 National Show in Seattle. He then expanded the concept of a broadbased Seattle Flower Show that topped the dahlia show calendar for several years in the 1980s, until others carried the idea into a mid-winter event. 

Marketing the dahlia was one of Phil’s passions too. Toward that goal, Phil took over the task of continuing the publishing traditions of the Pacific Dahlia by starting a new, broader-based regional yearbook, Dahlias of Today. As main instigator and guiding hand, he steadfastly improved that publication’s content and appearance. This slender love child of 1980 has since grown into one of the dahlia world’s best-regarded works, its 100 colorful pages replete with concise articles on a wide range of topics, including international coverage and foreign contributions. 

Not content with starting only a dahlia club, Phil was instrumental in the organization of the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers in 1984, the parent association of many prominent northwest dahlia clubs. Several of the organizational meetings for the Federation were held at Phil’s home, and it was there that the first committee chairmanships were assigned one afternoon shortly after the official formation of the Federation. Once again, Phil would level his steely eyes at you and explain how you would love to be in charge of, for example, education. You didn’t say “no.” 

From the beginning, the Federation has held yearly cultural (spring) and judging (summer) workshops. The early workshops were held just steps from Phil’s home at a local Grange hall. As could be expected, Phil contributed greatly to the agendas, suggesting seminar topics and judging subjects. He also helped formulate the Federation judging curriculum. The structured format required Federation judges to both grow and exhibit dahlias, preventing judges who did neither from judging at Federation shows. 

Late in the ’80s, Phil decided to move the operation east near Black Diamond, where he found suitable land for an even larger operation. However, by that time, the tireless Phil had become weakened from contracting HIV, and to his regret had to leave much of the care of his dahlias in the hands of others. He trimmed his collection to 400 plants in 1991 and, though by now terminally ill with the AIDS virus, he managed to direct the PSDA show one last time. He has left us a lasting legacy in high standards, club goal setting, and promotion of best practices, leadership, and innovative thinking.Originations



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