Dahlia Legacy Project

By the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers

Puget Sound Dahlia Association (PSDA)

Puget Sound Dahlia Association

Puget Sound Dahlia Association is dedicated to growing, hybridizing, exhibiting, and conducting research on dahlias in the Northwest region of the United States. The club maintains two display gardens in regional parks:

  • The Bellevue Botanical Garden display bed is planted each May and is generally in full bloom from late July through October 15.
  • The Volunteer Park display bed is located near the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle and is also planted each May and generally in full bloom from late July through mid-October.


During the winter of 1975, several members of the Seattle Dahlia Society wished to take a different course in club activities and shows. They wanted to emphasize education, high judging standards, and promote the dahlia in exhibition. These growers among them Ed Corning, Harold Miller, Roger Walker, Bill Batts, Vic Pennington, and especially Phil Traff founded the Puget Sound Dahlia Assn. in 1976. In those days, Barney Welch handled tuber sales and Roger Johnson was treasurer. But Phil Traff was the guiding spirit. He grew up in a dahlia household – his mother Jenny was an exhibitor and so inspired him in the hobby.

The future teacher successfully entered shows throughout his teen years. His friend Steve Santose accompanied Phil to those shows and even down the West Coast all the way to San Diego.

PSDA had its first coming out that summer of ’76, presenting its exhibition booth downtown at the SeaFirst Building. Vic Pennington, Bill Batts, and their wives took part in a horticultural fair in its lobby.

The first Club show (in Seattle’s Lake City Community Center hall) had its challenges. It was dark and had low ceilings, but it was well organized and developed some public interest. Phil insisted on nice displays with good signage. By 1978 the show had moved to the Rainier Room at the Seattle Center. There you also found Martin Kral’s commercial photo display. He sold two pictures. Winning dahlias then, and now, were Camano Cloud and LeVonne Splinter.

For a couple of years, Phil turned over the presidency to others. Dr. Christine Robertson tenure and love for dahlias was brief. She later turned to dogs, literally. Les Connell, another teacher with growing aspirations, contributed to the great success of our club and actively participated as owner of Connell’s Dahlias, then the largest grower in our area. Our club meetings and tuber sales were held at the Faith Lutheran Church in Seattle for years to come.

On Phil’s initiative, the first edition of Dahlias: A Monthly Guide appeared in 1978. It has since been revised and re-edited three more times. In 1980 Phil took on another project: he started Dahlias of Today, our beloved annual and a radical departure from conventional dahlia publications. Martin Kral and club secretary Roger Walker sat down with Phil and designed the yearbook in late-night sessions. The pre-press workflow for such color publications was more complex and a lot more time-consuming than today’s desktop publishing. After gathering the material, we had to take it to a typesetter, who then produced the mechanicals that a printer could transform into metal plates that are fitted on the offset press. Color work needed to be processed separately, and so they went to another shop. The transfer and exchange of these often involved driving across town, and Phil habitually would call Roger or Martin late at night to take these from an agreed-upon meeting place to the print shop the next morning.

Comes a new show venue – Scottish Rite Temple on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. In 1980 we took over the entire complex and had exhibitions there for several years. We even could stash our newly-purchased show tables on their storage shed on site! Easy access, a large parking lot, and the freedom to decorate to the hilt – what was not to like? Phil Traff’s gladiolus lined the staircases, and the lobby entrance was landscaped by the Parks Dept. Volunteer Park Conservatory staff. Inside, Phil’s glads also took center stage. His floral waterfall was featured, because by then gladiolus and dahlias vied for his attention and care in his Sumner gardens.

Among the new participants in the show were a number of horticultural groups, most prominent among them the Greater Seattle Fuchsia Society, whose president (Will Gibbs) also was a PSDA member. You also could admire roses, gesneriads, bonsai, violets, cactus, and a large display of orchids. Bonaventure was the big winner then. The show was advertised with large color posters and so attracted a steady stream of visitors on both days.

Another new Traff initiative was the 1982 establishment of the dahlia garden in nearby Volunteer Park. Charley Royer was Seattle’s mayor, and his brother Bob the deputy mayor. Bob liked to raise dahlias and PSDA president Robertson appeared with him to face KING-5 cameras (both Royers formerly came from that TV station). We have maintained a dahlia garden there ever since.

It was Phil Traff’s intention to promote the club by holding the 1983 ADS National Show on site and bring the world dahlia community to Seattle. And so we did. The 17th National offered over 1,800 entries, along with special attractions, such as the 277-bloom Dahlia Spectacular in the lobby. Numerous baskets and arrangements lined the halls. Another front runner in those days was the new dahlia sensation April Dawn. Dick Rodewald, an artist and exhibitor of dahlias such as his favorite Carol Channing, also provided us with the dahlia illustrations we still use today. Other successful exhibitors such as Dr. Jim Hunt, Elsie Dungan, and Ed Redd, were prominent winners.

The ADS leadership was in awe and remarked in glowing terms about the young PSDA’s successful management of this event. Foreign visitors such as Tom Bebbington and Dave Spencer accepted special rewards at the show. With guest speakers like Dr. Keith Hammett and Derek Hewlett (NDS) giving presentations, and then bus tours to Tacoma and all the way to the Ambrose’s on Camano Island, the visitors were ready for some relaxation.

Their wishes were answered at the new Sheraton Downtown where most were lodged. The evening awards dinner for the 185 guests offered a special 45-minute presentation by the 70 members of the Radost Folk Ensemble, performing Slavic and Appalachian dances to great applause. ADS President Mark Alger then also presented the ADS Gold Medal to local growers Bess and Bill Owens.

The following year it was star hour. Broadway star Carol Channing (also performing at the 5th downtown) was invited to open the 1984 show. Her No. 1 fan, Dick Rodewald, met Carol ahead of the show to present her with the namesake dahlia. Our then-president Will Gibbs escorted her to the show, where she gave a brief speech and accepted a large portrait of her dahlia. There were to be refreshments, but to Martin Kral’s horror, the person given the task to prepare hors d’oeuvres made only egg salad sandwiches!

Jenny and her son Phil were inseparable. Phil’s commercial garden in Sumner supplied dahlias and other cut flowers to wholesalers early in the morning – and then he went on to school to teach. Another raiser, Ed Redd, moved to our area from San Diego expressly to grow quality dahlias. When Roger Johnson left the club, Dale Hylton took over as our long-time treasurer. Until recently, he also created and maintained the club website.

Phil was insistent on training good judges. One of the regular judging workshops typically was held in Gordon Leroux’s pool room in Everett. It would include many well-known Snohomish growers, such as Les Steenfott of Marlene Joy fame, Mick Senior who introduced Spartacus and Dave Eldridge. Workshops then were followed by long, intense discussions, though Leroux Gardens also featured a social hour. From up North, Wayne Holland (he of the Hy series) showed his love of dahlias AND wine at those occasions. Rosa Beer and her husband Bill headed up the Vancouver, BC society. Another notable grower was West Seattle’s Bill Batts. Charlotte Zeller, also from West Seattle, provided invaluable assistance at show time. As the owner of a carpentry shop, she also helped prep staging and stored trophies and tables.

In 1986 another important change in venue and show came. Phil had visited the huge Philadelphia Flower Show earlier and thought that we could pull off such a horticultural spectacular as well. So the Seattle Flower Show was born. Such a large undertaking took a lot of planning, coordination, and resources most of that was from the PSDA. Its $30,000 budget sapped the club’s finances, that were only partially made up by sponsorship fees and admission charges. Show organizers had secured the cooperation of numerous horticultural clubs and a number of commercial exhibitors, but finding a main sponsor for the show proved difficult. A major reason was the nursery trade’s annual Farwest Show held in Portland, OR the same weekend. Another was that back in those years, garden centers and nurseries took much of summer off. The public’s interest was there, but so were summer distractions. Still, the show was often crowded and soon developed a reputation for a summer must-see.

The Seattle Flower Show took over the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, but it also extended down into the Mercer Arena, where horticultural workshops and some specialty flower displays were located. We were able to secure a valuable main sponsorship by the Puget Sound Bank one year, Washington Mutual another, and by a new chain of nursing homes (Providence Pt.) another time. This was the first time visitors saw demonstration gardens created by landscape and floral designers. There were a couple of demo stages where presenters offered topics as varied as growing gesneriads and bonsai care. We had live music entertaining those who wanted to take a rest at the garden café in the center of the Exhibition Hall. The commercial booths included garden-themed art and crafts.

Phil, his assistant Blair Kangley, along with show designer Mark Daniels, was everywhere throughout the show. They worked all year to create the event and secure vendors, such as the orchid growers, who would participate. Many visitors would stand in line for some time before the show opened to admire summer’s flowers. One of the first displays they encountered was the 300-bloom Dahlia Spectacular. Count the blooms and win a prize. Among regular show visitors from the dahlia world was Smokey Smith from California. Many club members volunteered at the show. The Eckhoff’s SeaTac Gardens booth, Vic Pennington’s Marine View Gardens, Connell’s Dahlias, and Dahlias by Phil Traff represented the dahlia world. All had many displays of baskets featuring their catalog dahlias.

The show featured exhibits from all participating horticultural groups, garden tools, and a waterproofing company or two. In 1989 we had a number of foreign dahlia notables, including Cyril Higgo from South Africa, the raiser of laciniate dahlias, who spoke in Tacoma during his only visit to America. Dr. Hammett once again was in attendance and spoke at a seminar. Dr. Gerhard Wirth and his wife visited for a month from Vienna, Austria. Gerhard had a 5-acre dahlia nursery near the city center; it has been a family business since the 1920s. Wife Elisabeth created a special display for the show, and he helped in judging dahlias. In those days we always had a group of dahlia lovers from Australia and New Zealand, along with British visitors.

The awards evening was held at the Pier 70 Restaurant and was quite an affair. We had a caterer provide elegant hors d’ oeuvres and full dinners, enjoyed live music, and the prizes or gifts included Indian art and crafts that Martin Kral had collected at pow wows. We had the 5th Seattle Flower Show in 1990, but it would be the last at Seattle Center. The Opera House and Mercer Arena was to undergo a 3-year remodel, so we had to look for an alternative.

The Northgate Mall was the venue for 1991’s show. At that time, the central concourse was wide open and well-suited for our exhibition. Northgate gave us funds for posters and other promotions, and we reserved the downstairs Bon Marché dining room for meetings and awards. We exhibited at Northgate for the next four years. But the first show (still advertised as the Seattle Flower Show) was the best.

Club founder Phil passed away in spring of 1992. After that, Roger Walker began leading editorship of Dahlias of Today.

At the 1992 show, Bill McClaren of Kalispell, MT was the featured speaker. We met at the pub-themed Barnaby’s where the first Traff medal was given to his mother Jenny. Our second medal was awarded to Jean Knutson, a very successful exhibitor of Hamari Accord. The hottest introduction that year was Mick Senior’s Spartacus. About that time we had the good fortune to acquire new members, Ted Hastings, the Crawford’s, and the Surber’s. They would prove to be active officers we needed during the 1990s. Harold Miller sold his dahlia-filled lakefront Sammamish property to the Burtons as he joined his wife in assisted living. David and Betty Burton became avid dahlia growers and also joined important club activities. Betty became vice president, and then club president in the new millennium.

Under new club president, Bob Surber, the board meetings at his home became more frequent. Attendance at meetings also picked up: the Surbers and their Kenmore neighbors, the Crawfords, made a formidable foursome to provide effective club leadership. It was in that time that we established our first Tuber Palace in the basement of Ruth Surber’s Kenmore church. Our club meetings moved as well. The monthly club newsletter, published by Roger Walker, started in an online version.

The 1996 club show would be the last at Northgate Mall. We had been advised that a major mall remodel would take place soon to bring America’s second-oldest shopping mall into the new era.

We moved the dahlia show to the Eastside, to Totem Lake Mall in Kirkland. It was one of the very few options that the club could consider. We held our shows there for several years. The best thing that can be said about that location was its Old Country Buffet, where we had our awards meetings. That also was a period of club staff changes. Stricken with leukemia, Bob Surber carried on with his garden work until death took him also. Art Chmura stepped up from his vice presidency in 1998 and guided the club for a couple of years, assisted by Brad Freeman. Our long-time club secretary Roger Walker then turned over his responsibilities to Ted Hastings for ten years.

The club then followed an invitation of Factoria Mall and so moved our show farther south in 1999 to a pretty, popular shopping center. Brad Freeman, our new president, was assisted by Betty Burton in planning our show. Our foreign notable in 2000 was the president of the Czech DAGLA dahlia society, Jan Dvorák. He presented the club with a large crystal vase for use as a show prize.

The ADS National Show returned to our area in 2004. Held at the SeaTac Hilton Conference Center under the Federation’s sponsorship and planned largely by PSDA staff, it was executed to perfection. Art Chmura, our club president, was assisted by his wife Julie, who also designed the show logo. The overall show chair was Brad Freeman, while Roger Walker was responsible for the dahlia exhibition. A large contingent of foreign dahlia representatives arrived, from Great Britain (Graham Carey) to Dr. Hammett from New Zealand. Bill McClaren introduced his new Encyclopedia of Dahlias book. The event also was the last opportunity to meet the veteran grower Gordon Leroux, who passed away not long after.

Eventually club meetings moved north into another Kenmore church, while the Tuber Palace was reestablished nearby and gave us full opportunity to create a well-furnished prep area for our tuber teams. Dedicated volunteers spend hours sorting, inspecting, marking, and bagging dahlia roots for sale. Woody White acquired the title of Tuber Czar and for several years organized this very important effort. Colin Walker followed Art Chmura as club president, while Ted Hastings eventually ended his long assignment as secretary in 2008. Art then took over the creation of the club bulletin and – together with wife Julie – has continued this role until today. Increasingly, Colin Walker has handled Dahlias of Today layout, with his photos now taking up a major share of illustrating this respected publication.

The 2008 show went south to the Kent Commons. This event was managed by Al Kaas, then also PSDA president, who developed a reputation as an astute hybridizer.

A year later, Martin Kral thought that we needed an easier way to present the variety of dahlias in times when there were none to display. He came up with a design for a banner stand displaying all the forms. The final design, created by a professional, then became a new source of income for our club. At last count, we sold 28 forms banner stands to other clubs.

In other club initiatives, we must mention our efforts to meet the public. We were invited to give presentations, such as at Molbak Nursery and during the Friends of Conservatory sales. Club members also prepare a large number of bouquets for an Eastside non-profit fundraiser in September. We honor our senior members and introduce new growers. And every club meeting involves a culture segment. One of the most critical topics presented every fall is tuber division and storage. Other program features are handled by experienced growers or by invited guest speakers, authors, and noted garden experts at club meetings.

A couple of special club meetings include a vase contest, a culinary competition, or the popular seedling contest. The March tuber sale usually is followed by the tuber auction the following month. In May we then also offer a plant auction of choice or rare varieties. As for Volunteer Park, maintenance of the dahlia beds is our club’s responsibility. From planting hundreds of tubers in May to weeding and dead-heading in summer, and then digging in often inclement weather of November, the dahlia garden there requires our regular attention and volunteer effort.

After three years at Kent, our show moved north once more. We were asked by Sky Nursery in Shoreline to bring our dahlias to its large greenhouse next to Aurora Avenue. We gladly accepted. Natural lighting, lots of display area, lower cost, supportive advertising, easy access and a large parking lot.

Our show once again became a magnet for flower lovers around the Sound. The impressive array of very large blooms at its south end made for great photography, and Giant growers like Steve Santose, Ken Greenway, and Tacoma’s Waltons (with their Narrows Big Boy) reveled in their glory. There were at least 90 other tables filled with entries and displays to admire. Jeff Sandys took on the club presidency, and Rosemary Freeman accepted the vice presidency with her stipulation that she never would be asked to move into his position. (She has not yet reneged on that firm promise.)

In 2015, the year of the National Show in Tacoma, we hosted Prof. José Muñoz from Mexico’s University of Chapingo, Maestra Lupita Treviño (President of the Mexican Dahlia Association), as well as ace photographer Hans Auinger from Austria. Steve Cox visited from Australia, and the National Show gave others from abroad a chance to roam about the region in search of dahlia gardens.

The Bellevue Botanical Garden became an alternate venue to the Kenmore church for, tuber sales and then also for club meetings. Since then we have established a meeting schedule alternating between these locations. After serving as ADS First Vice President for several years, Brad Freeman (still our treasurer) was elected American Dahlia Society president at the 2018 National Show.

In 2018 The Seattle Dahlia Society had to look for a new venue for their show, and so it was a coming-together of two local dahlia organizations that gave us the Combined Annual Show at Sky Nursery. With 1,600 entries and full tables, this exhibition now can make the valid claim to be the largest dahlia show on the continent. By necessity requiring coordination of show features, we merged some traditions of both long-time clubs. We also featured a vase competition that enhanced the display of so many dahlias, as well as the SDS’s Old-Fashioned Dahlia Bouquet contest.

Ken Greenway’s Accent Dahlias became the source of many winning large dahlias. That was no more visible than at the 2019 show. His AC Jeri was a highlight, but the overall top bloom was his white AC Casper. The perennial winning team of Paul and Cheryl Howard from Surrey, BC had to share some prizes with the father-daughter due of Wayne and RaeAnn Lobaugh from west of Chehalis. Prominent show visitor that year was Warren Vigor of Australia (on his second trip to our show). With the expectation that in the future Sky would welcome our show, we set plans for 2020 and beyond.

The February 2020 club meeting featured the annual photo contest. Our plans for a fund-raising tuber sale at Bellevue Botanical, however, were dashed by the declaration of the coronavirus pandemic right after that meeting. The club scrambled to shift the sale online; within weeks we were able to design a Shopify store and sold out quickly. Then the monthly meetings were moved online as well. Our Zoom meetings proved to be even more popular than in-person get-togethers, which were canceled to meet the state virus mandates. We also learned that by using Zoom we could share online presentations and engage speakers from other states and even from overseas.

There would be no dahlia show that year. With the coronavirus restrictions aiming to limit exposure, the calendar of mass events was severely curtailed, so the show organizers made the painful decision to postpone the annual tradition. Instead, we offered to provide dahlia bouquets during the last weekends of August to Sky Nursery. That was to remind customers that we were just suspending our display of quality dahlias.

The show returned in 2021, and everyone was properly masked, and we complied with other virus restrictions. To minimize exposure to unvaccinated visitors, the show booth was unstaffed, the judging teams were asked to keep a social distance, and there would be no donut or snack bar. Nevertheless, the steady stream of admiring visitors gives us hope that we can look forward to many years of growing and showing our favorite flower.

By: Martin Kral, March 2022

Founded March 7, 1988
Location King County, WA
Show Location Sky Nursery, Shoreline, WA
Co-Presidents Anne Maria Jacobson
Vice-President Colin Walker
Secretary Stacy DeKoekkoek
Treasurer Brad Freeman
Directors Kathy Hargrave, Debbie Wetmore, David Blackmer, Linda Cles, Will Smart, Colin McMullin
Publications Dahlias of Today, Dahlias: A Monthly Guide
Website http://pugetsounddahlias.com/
Online Store https://puget-sound-dahlia-association.myshopify.com/
Public Gardens Volunteer Park, Seattle; Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Heritage, Sammamish
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