Acocoxochitl : The Dahlia

acocoxochitl : (Nahuatl) “flower of hollow stems with water” – atl (water), cocotli (tube) and xochitl (flower)

also called Chichipatli : (Nahuatl) “bitter medicine” – chichic (bitter) and patli (medicine) (1)

  1. an alternative translation is “dog medicine” chi (dog) and patli (medicine/medicinal herb) (Bye 1986) (Simeon 1984). It is sometimes said that chichimeca people are called “dog” people (although it is likely closer in translation to “barbarian”) but the i’s in chichi are both short while those in Chīchīmēcah are long, which changes the meaning as vowel length is phonemic in Nahuatl. (Andrews) (Karttunen) (Lockhart)

The Latin nomenclature for the flower is after the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, a student of the famous Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.

Dahlia (on right) as depicted in the Badianus manuscript

Dahlias are an annual, flowery plant with tuberous roots. They are of Mesoamerican origin, with 41 species native to Mexico.

Dahlia petroglyph from Xochimilco

Most wild species are in central Mexico, and they were historically grown in the area of what is today Mexico City

Dahlias are a close New World relative of both sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes.

The dahlia family has many species. It is possible that all dahlia species are edible, but there is a clear record of human use of two particular species: the common garden dahlia (D. x pinnata or D. variabilis) and D. coccinea.

A wild, treelike species was called acocotli by the Aztecs, meaning “water cane.” They valued the plant especially as a source of water for traveling hunters. Even to this day, dahlias will store large reserves of water in their stems — one reason they succumb so quickly to hard frosts.

Both the tuberous roots and flowers can be used as foods. Dahlia tubers may be eaten either raw or cooked. To cook with tubers, they should be boiled and their skin removed. They may then be used in any recipe like other tubers (such as potatoes or sweet potatoes). Their cooking water can be reserved to use to make teas, coffees, or chocolate or fruit drinks. The tubers’ delicate taste ranges from bland and starchy to mildly sweet and has been described as a mixture of celery, artichoke and jicama. D.coccinea is noted as having plentiful and tasty roots (Mejía-Santoyo etal).

Heirlooms varieties are considered more palatable than the modern hybrids which tend to be bred for huge, fluffy flower heads. The sweetness or bitterness of the root is likely affected by the timing of its collection. Inulin levels are highest just before budding time so they are likely to be sweeter if harvested at this time.

The petals should be washed before being consumed, and can be eaten raw or cooked in both sweet and savoury dishes.

Dahlia tubers can be eaten raw or cooked. It is best to peel them, as the flavour of the skin is often unpleasant.
The flavour of dahlia tubers changes with storage. When first harvested, they are crisp and fairly bland, with a taste something like celery. There are also often spicy or bitter flavours at this stage. With storage, some of the inulin converts to fructose and the tubers become sweeter.

Prepared dahlia tubers ready to be cooked. Photo by Asociación Mexicana de la Dalia o Acocoxochitl via Facebook.
A dahlia menu as put on by the Asociación Mexicana de la Dalia o Acocoxochitl


Mini sope with chilacayote and dahlia tubers in mole

Mini sope with chicken tinga and dahlia tubers

Prehispanic dessert

Puff pastry vol-au-vent with dahlia tubers sweetened with maguey syrup

Butter cookies made with dahlia tuber flour

Tamarind agua fresca fortified with the cooking water of the dahlia tubers

The Asociación Mexicana de la Dalia o Acocoxochitl is a non-profit Civil Association dedicated to promoting the knowledge, appreciation, cultivation, use and conservation of the Dahlia in Mexico.

Dahlia nutrition information (Nsabimana 2011)
Nutritional content of some wild and cultivated varieties of Dahlia. (Mejía-Santoyo etal)

La Brü and Baja Brewing have collaborated to produce an artisanal beer containing dahlia tuber which they have called Chichipatli

Medicinal Uses

Native people used the plant as a tonic diuretic to treat cough, against colic and to reduce fever. The tubers have the medicinal property of reducing glucose levels by producing inulin. Dahlia tubers are a good source of inulin. Inulin is a complex polysaccharide and is used by some plants as a means of storing energy. It is typically found in roots or rhizomes. Inulin belongs to a class of dietary fibres known as fructans. It is a prebiotic and enhances the growth and activities of probiotic bacteria in the gut and can inhibit the growth or activities of some pathogenic bacteria. Some side effects of inulin consumption, which may occur in sensitive persons, may include intestinal discomfort, flatulence, bloating, stomach noises, belching, and cramping. Inulin is not suitable for those on a low FODMAP diet (1). Other sources of inulin are chicory, agave, dandelion, globe and Jerusalem artichokes and jicama.

  1. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) that the small intestine absorbs poorly.

Research conducted at the Autonomous University of Chapingo (UACH) on the “Impacto del consumo de raíz de dalia en pacientes con diabetes mellitus tipo 2” (1), based on the research of nutrition graduates Maricela Camero Román and Berenice Cetina Santoyo, has found that a dahlia extract (2) helps to reduce the levels of glucose and glycosylated hemoglobin in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Patients undergoing treatment showed decreased sugar, triglyceride and cholesterol levels and reported improvement in energy levels, less heaviness in the legs and less fluid retention.
In 2020 a study to investigate the safety and optimal dose of Dahlia Extract in people with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes (3) was registered with the Australian and New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry (4). This study has already proven to be extremely effective (in mice).

  1. “Impact of dahlia root consumption in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus”
  2. The treatment was based on the consumption of an infusion of the dried root
  3. A 4-week, placebo-controlled, dose-ramping study to investigate the safety and optimal dose of Dahlia Extract in people with either pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes.

The inulin content of dahlia roots is substantial (as is the protein content of some varieties)(Mejı́a-Muñoz etal 2020)

Dr José Antonio López-Sandoval of the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México in his Herbal notes of the (optional) Learning unit: Herbalism notes this of dahlia. “In addition to inulin dahlia contains eriodictyol (1), diastase, phytin and benzoic acid, of which the bacteriostatic, fungicidal and expectorant activities have been proven and that eriodictyol has also been used as an expectorant in the treatment of asthma”.

  1. Eriodictyol is a flavanone group of flavonoids, present in citrus fruits and Chinese herbs. There is evidence for its anti-inflammatory, antiallergenic, antimicrobial, anticancer, and antioxidant properties. Flavanones are are various aromatic, colourless ketones derived from flavone that often occur in plants as glycosides.

Traditional medicinal uses:

Dahlia variabilis : diuretic, diaphoretic, anti-colic, anti-flatulent, anti-tuberculosis
Dahlia coccinea : tonic, diuretic, diaphoretic, anti-colic, anti-flatulent

Sahagun mention the variety known as acocoxiuitl. The root was used to treat “pus in the abdomen”, and “male sickness”. It can cool a fever and can be used in the form of an enema. The flowers can be used for someone who has relapsed after an illness and can be used both before and after visiting the temazcal (1). For those who are not sick, the flowers can be used to aid digestion or to alleviate “feverishness”. The variety known as coanenepilli was used in cases of dysuria (2) where there is pus or blood in the urine. It could be added to water, chocolate or mescal wine before being drunk. Sahagun also mentions the root of the variety acocotli (D.variablis) is ground together with the root of the nopal and plastered onto broken limbs before splinting them.

  1. A steam bath or in essence an “Aztec sauna”
  2. Painful urination

The earliest western record of Dahlias comes from the physician Francisco Hernandez in 1570

In taste the root is smelly, bitter, sharp; it is hot and dry in the third degree, one ounce eaten relieves stomach ache, helps windiness of the stomach, provokes urine, brings out sweat, drives out chill, strengthens a weak stomach against chill, resists the cholic, opens obstructions, reduces tumors.”

In 1891 the explorer Lumholtz (1) recorded the use of dahlia root (species not mentioned) by the Tarahumara as a treatment for empacho and constipation. In the Badianus manuscript the stem of a variety called cohuanenepilli is macerated in water with chia seed and used to treat obstructed urinary tubules.

  1. Carl Sofus Lumholtz (23 April 1851 – 5 May 1922). Lumholtz travelled to Australia in 1880, where he spent ten months from 1882-1883 among the indigenous inhabitants in North Queensland. Lumholtz added a level of academic research that was unique for the period. His work recorded for the first time the social relationships, attitudes and the role of women in the society. Lumholtz later travelled to Mexico with the Swedish botanist C. V. Hartman. He stayed for many years, conducting several expeditions from 1890 through to 1910. In 1914 he began an expedition to explore the mostly unknown lands of Dutch Central Borneo, currently part of Indonesia.

Mejía-Santoyo (etal) notes that “until recently” D.coccinea was used by farmers as a food and used it to treat external skin infections. This is likely due to the benzoic acid content of dahlia (which is also likely the cause of the bitter taste of some varieties). Benzoic acid is antibiotic/antimicrobial and can be used to treat skin, eye and ear infections. The fresh juice of the stems and tubers is used.

  • Andrews, J. Richard (2003). Introduction to Classical Nahuatl (Revised ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Bye, Robert A. : (1986) Ethnobotanical Notes from the Valley of San Luis, Colorado : Journal of Ethnobiology. 6: 289-306. ( tDAR id: 177092)
  • Cruz, Martín de la. (1940). The Badianus manuscript (Codex Barberini, Latin 241) Vatican Library; an Aztec herbal of 1552. Baltimore :The Johns Hopkins Press
  • Hakiki, M., Agustine, S., Yety, M.I., Puspa, D.L., Desak, G.S.A.(2015). Characterization of Inulin from Local Red Dahlia (Dahliasp. L) Tubers by Infrared Spectroscopy. International Symposium on Applied Chemistry. 16:78-84.
  • Karttunen, Frances (1983). An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Lockhart, James (2001). Nahuatl as Written. Stanford University Press.
  • J.M. Mejı́a-Muñoz, I. De Luna-Garcı́a, E.F. Jiménez-Ruiz, E. Sosa-Montes, C. Flores-Espinosa, G. Treviño-De Castro and J. Reyes-Santiago (2020). Research on dahlia, the national flower of Mexico. Acta Horticulturae, (1288), 103–108. doi:10.17660/ActaHortic.2020.1288.15
  • Mejía-Santoyo, Miriam Cecilia., Arellano-Vicuña, Diana., Catalina-Ríos Peralta, Sofía ., Mejía Muñoz, J. M., Sosa-Montes, E. : DAHLIA FLOWERS AND TUBERS – A HEALTHY AND NOURISHING FOOD FROM MEXICO Universidad del Valle de México, Campus Texcoco; last accessed 07/12/20
  • Nsabimana, C., Jiang, B. (2011),”The chemical composition of some garden Dahlia tubers”, British Food Journal, Vol. 113 Iss 9 pp. 1081 – 1093
  • Simeon, R. (1984). Diccionario de la Lengua Nahuatl 0 Mexicana. Siglo Veintiuno, Mexico.
  • Whitley, Glenn Ross (1985). The medicinal and nutritional properties of Dahlia spp. , 14(1), 75–82. doi:10.1016/0378-8741(85)90031-5


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