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Three women in orange aprons carry dahlias away from stonehenge. They are wearing dahlia headdresses.
The Stonehenge Dahlia Shows. Photo credit: Jim Holden/English Heritage

The return of the Stonehenge Dahlia Shows

Rediscover the 19th-century dahlia craze at Stonehenge. Dive into its history and the grand return of the Stonehenge Dahlia Shows in 2023.

Visiting the Stonehenge Dahlia Shows this weekend
Dahlia shows return to Stonehenge for the first time in 180 years this weekend. 29th September to 1st October, 9.30am-5pm. Don't miss the flower event of the year! Free for Stonehenge ticket holders. Book online for a 10% discount.

In the midst of the 19th century, a phenomenon captured the hearts of thousands in England: the Stonehenge Dahlia Shows. On 31 August 1842, Stonehenge was not the site of solstice pilgrimages or flocks of tourists marveling at ancient stones. Instead, it was the epicenter of the dahlia craze that had enraptured the nation.

Dahlia delight

Quite aside from the mystical allure, the draw was the exquisite beauty of dahlias. These flowers, native to Mexico and the mountainous regions of South America, were a relatively recent introduction to Britain, arriving in 1798. Named in honor of the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, dahlias underwent a transformation in England. Initially, the flower’s roots were considered a potential food source when boiled. But, with hybridization, the country witnessed the evolution of single blooms to double blooms, culminating in a myriad of colors and shapes that made dahlias the ideal candidates for cut flowers and competition exhibits.

This passion for dahlias coincided with the rise in popularity of al fresco entertainment. Moving away from traditional venues like taverns and town halls, which hosted flower shows since at least the 17th century, the new trend of open-air events was becoming a massive hit. These events were not just about flowers; they offered opportunities for promenading, spotting the fashionable elite, and witnessing the grandeur achievable with marquees and tents.

Stonehenge dahlias

Stonehenge’s dalliance with dahlias began earnestly with the Salisbury Plain Dahlia Society, formed in 1838. Under the patronage of local gentry and prominent figures like Sir John Dugdale Astley and Charles Brudenell-Bruce, the society sought to celebrate dahlias in a grand manner. These shows were not just floral exhibitions; they were grand events complete with music, celebrity appearances, and opportunities for the attendees to promenade and be seen.

The shift to Stonehenge as the venue was influenced by John Keynes, a Salisbury nurseryman, who recognized the potential of combining the allure of Stonehenge with the dahlia craze. With support from Sir Edmund Antrobus, whose estate housed Stonehenge, the first Stonehenge dahlia show in 1842 saw an overwhelming response. The events between 1842 and 1845 attracted between 5,000 and 10,000 visitors each time, firmly establishing Stonehenge as a popular venue.

These dahlia exhibitions were immersive. From floral devices, sculptures made entirely of dahlias, to the opportunity to witness new dahlia varieties like the ‘Hero of Stonehenge’, these shows were a testament to Victorian creativity and passion.

As the years passed, the fervor for dahlias diminished, only to be reignited in the later part of the century. The formation of the National Dahlia Society in 1881 ensured that these flowers would remain etched in the nation’s consciousness.

Head for the stones

Two women in orange aprons decorate an imitation Stonehenge edifice in preparation for the Stonehenge Dahlia Shows.
Preparations for the Stonehenge Dahlia Shows. Photo credit: Jim Holden/English Heritage

Fast forward to today, the Stonehenge Dahlia Shows are making a grand comeback. From 29 September to 1 October 2023, visitors can once again experience the magic of over 5,000 dahlia blooms at Stonehenge. This modern rendition pays homage to the iconic 1840s events, complete with photo opportunities, history lessons, and a chance to crown a new ‘Hero of Stonehenge’.

Unlike the Victorian edition, the modern-day Stonehenge Dahlia Shows contain an element of the neo-pagan, with visitors encouraged to wear vibrant dahlia headdresses.

As Louise Crawley, the English Heritage landscape historian, aptly puts it, “The shows were an opportunity for people to gather and parade in their finery.” After a hiatus of 180 years, Stonehenge once again welcomes the dazzling beauty of dahlias, reminding us of a time when flowers could draw thousands to a historical site, not just for the stones but for the vibrant blooms that adorned them.

For more information on the Stonehenge dahlia displays, check out the English Heritage website.