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Stonehenge dahlia show celebrates largely forgotten Victorian tradition

With the autumn equinox gone and the winter months not far away, Salisbury Plain can take on a rather chilly, sombre air.

But not this weekend when displays of 5,000 blooms – cerise pinks, deep crimsons, vibrant oranges – will light up the landscape to celebrate a largely forgotten Victorian tradition: the Stonehenge dahlia shows.

In the 1840s crowds of up to 10,000 people would arrive at the stones to gaze at displays of prize-winning dahlias and flower sculptures and also enjoy cricket matches and brass band performances.

The English Heritage landscape historian, Louise Crawley, said: “The shows were an opportunity for people to gather and parade in their finery. It is wonderful to see these beautiful flowers return to Stonehenge after 180 years.”

To highlight and recreate the spectacle of the Stonehenge dahlia shows, floral sculptures, including a giant trilithon, have been fashioned by local growers, flower arranging clubs and professional florists within a meadow of blooms at the site’s replica neolithic village.

Preparations for the Stonehenge dahlia show. Photograph: Jim Holden/English Heritage

Dahlias grown by members of the National Dahlia Society, will be displayed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the visitor centre, where a prize bloom will be chosen.

Families will also have the chance to pose in front of the ancient stones wearing dazzling dahlia headdresses created by an expert florist.

Originating from Mexico and Central America, dahlias became widely known in the UK after the Napoleonic wars, attracting devoted followings.

“They were considered really exciting and exotic plants and a challenge to grow,” said Crawley. “A hype grew up around them and dahlia shows began to be organised.”

The Salisbury Plain Dahlia Society was set up in 1838 with its shows at first taking place in the grounds of the Crown Inn in Everleigh.

From 1842-45, Lady Antrobus, whose husband Sir Edmund Antrobus owned the land Stonehenge sits on, welcomed it to the stone circle. An advert for the event said it was “open to all England” and prizes would be on a “liberal scale”.

According to the local paper, the inaugural show on 31 August 1842 was hugely popular: “The extreme novelty to selecting Stonehenge for a dahlia exhibition, and a delightful sunshine, attracted, as was expected, most of the fashionables of the neighbourhood to the spot.

“Such a scene of gaiety was never before witnessed on Salisbury Plain … Parties of gentlemen and elegantly dressed ladies were scattered about in all directions.”

But it wasn’t just the upper classes that attended. “Though it was organised by the gentry, it mixed people together,” said Crawley. “You had local fashionable people who came to promenade but everyone from Salisbury seemed to have emptied out on to the plain.

John Keynes, the honorary secretary of the Salisbury Plain Dahlia Society and grandson of the economist John Maynard Keynes, won a prize for his floral “device” – a wire sculpture covered in blooms – of the Antrobus coat of arms.

The show lasted four years at Stonehenge before moving to another venue. “It’s a tiny dot in the life of Stonehenge but important,” Crawley said. “It’s how people experienced the stones at one point in the 19th century.”

Over the decades to come, dahlias fell in and out of fashion, sometimes dismissed as gaudy and vulgar, but in 2023 are very much à la mode.

Sophie Powell, of London florists U.FL.O (Unidentified Floral Object), who has made headdresses out of dahlias for the exhibition, said: “Dahlias keep the summer going. The colours are amazing and they are long-lasting – very helpful to florists.”

Among those competing this weekend is Graham Young, a lorry driver from nearby Shrewton, who has won prizes for his blooms and said his favourite type was “Blyton softer gleam”, a small ball dahlia.

Gardening writer and broadcaster Arthur Parkinson said he was excited that the story of the shows was being told – and the joy of dahlias highlighted. “The heroes for me are the single and anemone varieties, which literally give life to a garden, brimming as they are with nectar and pollen for our precious pollinators.”

Michael Bowyer, the creative director of flowers at Salisbury Cathedral, who has worked with groups of arrangers to create “Indian wedding garlands” out of dahlias for the weekend, said, like many, he had known nothing of the Stonehenge shows until now. “It had faded into history,” he said. “It’s lovely it’s back.”

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