Portland’s close and easy access to the countryside provides a great escape to those who enjoy the rural landscape. In a half hour drive from the Lewis & Clark on I-5 South towards Oregon City, you can find yourself in Swan Island’s immersive 35-acre dahlia field. Each spring, Swan Island plants over 500,000 dahlias and cuts over 10,000 blooms daily during the blooming season with over 10,000 bunches going out every week.
The farm, found among farmland reminiscent of the Land of Oz, is hard to miss. Entering the festival you are greeted by the farm’s gift store with an array of knick knacks, jewelry and gardening supplies. The aroma from food trucks – including Chop Chop Chicken Sundaes and Creperie Le Bon Temp – is tempting. You can also enjoy a cup of coffee or tea from the neighboring Copper & Honey truck.
Other events on the farm include painting and photography classes, a flower arrangement workshop, concerts and a Sunday farmers market. Fresh cut dahlias are available for purchase from the cut flower stand. Over 40,000 visitors from all over the globe make their way to see the Dahlias in person. The Swan Island Dahlia festival is active until Sept. 19 and into October depending on the weather. The free parking and admission to the festival makes for an affordable experience for Lewis & Clark students.
Swan Island Dahlias is the largest dahlia farm in the United States and ships tubers all over the country as well as to Canada, Germany, England, Norway and Brazil. The farm, which has been in operation for over 96 years, was originally located in Swan Island in North Portland until the early 1940s when the farm moved to land in Canby, Ore. The farm used to have a roadside stand in Sellwood called Portland Dahlia Gardens. In 1953, twenty acres of farmland were purchased in Canby and the business relocated to its present location on 22nd Avenue.
The Willamette Valley’s nutrient rich soil allows the farmers to hybridize their own varieties and plant over 15,000 seedlings each year. All the Dahlia plants have been given eccentric names such as Boogie Nites, Dancin’ Queen and Unicorn Dreams, to name a few The names are inspired by each plant’s intricate arrangements. One can find themself in the wonderland of plants and spend hours paying mind to the unique composite flower head. Each plant’s floret amazingly presents itself as its own flower.
Nick and Margaret Gitts, former dairy farm owners from Laurel, Wash., purchased the farm in 1963. In 1975, their two sons, Nicholas and Ted Gitts, joined the business as partners and eventually purchased the business from their parents following their retirement in 1991. Nick Sr. lost his battle with cancer in 2007. In 2013, Ted & his wife Debbie Gitts passed away following a car accident. The family business is currently owned by Nicholas and Linda Gitts. Nicholas and his daughter Heather take care of daily operations on the farm.