In Full Bloom

By Beacon Staff

Bill McClaren is walking on clover as he makes his way through his impeccable backyard garden, pointing out various types of dahlias and calling each by name.

While it is an impressive show of memory, McClaren, 83, has an advantage for remembering the monikers of each bloom: he has hybridized and named about 150 of them, now being sold around the world.

“I’ve named them after all of our kids, all of our grandkids, after all of our friends,” McClaren says, pausing briefly to point at a tight, purple ball of a bloom, noting, “This one is after a son-in-law.”

A bee clambers across a dahlia growing in Bill McClaren’s garden.

It’s not long before he stops again, longer this time, at another flower, gently taking the open bloom with single-layered peach-colored petals and a bright orange center in his hand.

“I’ve named this one after my wife; it’s one I’ve had for a long time,” McClaren says. “It’s been a really nice flower.”

The dahlia is called the Alpen Lois, a combination of his wife’s name and the name of the dahlia nursery the couple ran for nearly 20 years, Alpen Gardens.

His garden – a showcase of the species in its own right – is a microcosm of one of the biggest events of the year for the flower’s enthusiasts.

In the fast-paced culture of Ferris wheels and rodeo that is the Northwest Montana Fair, the complex and beautiful world exhibited in the annual dahlia show holds its own. The exhibit takes place on Aug. 19 at 10 a.m., and will include gladiolus flowers for the first time.

McClaren, who founded the Montana Dahlia Society and wrote “The Encyclopedia of Dahlias,” has been running the show since it began at the fair in 1989. He’s the undisputed local expert of the dynamic flower and freely shares his growing techniques.

“He probably deserves ‘Dahlia Guy of the Year,’ or of the century,” Montana Dahlia Society President Dave Elden said. “He really has made it happen here.”

McClaren’s relationship with the dahlia began shortly after his arrival to the Flathead Valley in 1955. In 1960, McClaren met Paul Hovey, who had the only patch of dahlias in town.

But it wasn’t long after Hovey sold McClaren some tubers that Hovey suffered a heart attack and died, leaving the new dahlia gardener to figure it out alone. (There is a large bloom of red petals with white tips in McClaren’s garden named for Hovey.)

During this time, McClaren was a teacher and high school counselor. In 1967, he helped found Flathead Valley Community College and became its Dean of Students and also a counselor there until his retirement in 1982.

It was then that the dahlias and their seemingly infinite hybridization possibilities became the McClarens’ new professional focus. The couple opened Alpen Gardens, which at the time joined only 12 other commercial dahlia businesses in the country.

“And that was fortunate, because we got to meet a lot of international growers,” McClaren said.

By the time they sold Alpen Gardens in 2000, Bill and Lois were harvesting 55,000 tubers. Some of those would go toward the Montana Dahlia Society’s annual tuber spring sale at the Kalispell Center Mall.

The sale is one way the society works to showcase the dahlias to the general public. The show at the fair is another way to boost interest in the flowers. Elden said most people who wander into the building during the fair don’t realize dahlias can come in 15 different colors and 19 different forms. They are also odorless, for the most part.

“A lot of people are very interested in dahlias, just as [spectators],” Elden said. “There is a lot of foot traffic through the building; lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘look at that one.’ It’s usually very eye opening for people to see it.”

Dahlia grower Bill McClaren inspects one of the numerous flowers blooming in his backyard garden in Kalispell.

McClaren, who has judged floriculture at the fair for decades, trains the event’s judges. A teacher for 30 years, he is adept at imparting his knowledge of hybridization, though as Elden noted, it can be like drinking from a fire hose.

The variability of the species tightly holds McClaren’s attention. He can work on a hybridization project for about five or six years before he gets bored, but the knowledge gained in that project propels him on to his next floral venture.

Right now, he’s trying to perfect the combination of nearly black foliage and a bloom with a black center.

The realm of dahlia combination possibilities can be overwhelming, so McClaren recommends setting a goal and moving on once that goal is completed.

“Run into something you really like and you think, ‘Gosh, I’ve got to get working on that,’” McClaren said

As he walks to the front yard – Lois’ domain, full of annuals and perennials – McClaren points out a tall bush comprised of bright yellow flowers. It’s the same plant his grandmother received as a gift for buying seeds in 1918, he explains.

He took a chunk of the plant at his mother’s urging when he was visiting South Dakota, and now it has become a family tradition.

“I have it, all our kids have it, all our grandkids have it,” McClaren said.

He says you can tell how hearty a plant really is by how long it has survived, and dahlias are as robust as any plant he has grown.

After explaining that his garden is organic and there are hardly any bugs, McClaren looks around his well-groomed rows of flowers, flanked by growing vegetables and native plants on the other.

He and Lois, who will celebrate their 63rd anniversary in September, have transformed their property from mere grass, concrete and gravel to a floricultural dream in just four years.

“We have fun here,” McClaren acknowledged.

For more information on the Montana Dahlia Society, visit www.montanadahliasociety.org. For a full listing of Northwest Montana Fair events, visit www.nwmtfair.com.

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