Plant Spotlight – Auriculas

Auriculas as we know them today are descendants of a hybrid between 2 European alpine primulas; the Primula auricula, or bear’s ear, and Primula hirsuta or European alpine primrose.

They are thought to have been grown in UK gardens since the latter half of the 16th century and are mentioned in Gerard’s herbal of 1597. Introduction is disputed but the popular theory is that they were brought over with Flemish Huguenot migrants. Those plants would have had similar colour bases and stripes to the ones that you see today, but interestingly, it’s been noted that the petal edges were pointed rather than curved.

They were popular with florists, which then described the people growing plants to specific criteria not flower sellers, in the north of the country and were collected by both rich and working men who used their free time to cultivate & breed new varieties. With travel and recreational activities limited, many people grew plants competitively (not just auriculas but dahlias, carnations and many more), always striving to grow the very best specimens. Annual auricula shows were hosted in the local pubs and the plants were judged to very specific, very exacting standards, many of which are still used today. The owner of the best auricula would take home a coveted ‘copper kettle’ that adorned the front of the pub on show day.

The collective enthusiasm and effort that was poured into the breeding of auriculas by florists over 150 years or so, has culminated in the auriculas that we know and love today. There are two main types; the ‘shows’ and the ‘alpines’. Shows have a white dust like covering (farina/meal) on their flowers and/or leaves whilst the alpines do not. The alpine types are often brightly coloured with either a gold or light centre (paste). ‘Selfs‘ are a sub-category of shows and have a block of colour whilst ‘edges’ have grey, green or white sections of meal to the edge of the petals (hence the name).

Popular for centuries, they fell out of favour in the late 19th Century and with ‘stripe‘ and ‘double‘ varieties almost being lost completely due to the impact of WWI and II in the 20th Century. Thankfully, the auricula societies and a few stalwart growers continued to keep some of the remaining plants going. However, the lack of available plant material to florists, meant the gene pool was smaller and it was said to be harder to breed plants of a high quality. Some historic varieties did survive, such as ‘Argus’, originally bred by J. J. Keen in 1887 and lot of work has been done over the last 75 years to prevent the loss of these remaining heirloom plants and incorporate them in breeding new show worthy varieties.

Often thought to be fussy and needy, still many shy away from growing them, but they are hardy and can be grown outside in semi shade. The shows could do with some protection from the rain to stop the meal being spoilt but it’s not detrimental to the plants health if they do get splashed. Those that show them competitively today can spend a fair amount of time caring for their every need and the auricula societies of the UK have a wealth of information about the standards they require for showing if you are interested.

Just like their alpine ancestors they prefer lots of ventilation and a free draining compost as they detest being wet in the winter. A basic mix with equal parts of loam, compost and grit (or perlite) is good to start with; most growers will have their own preferred mixes but they tend to be a variant of this. The florists of yesteryear also used to have their own secret compost mixes, adding all sorts of extras for feeding such as sheep, cow or poultry manure, nitrate of soda and even brewer’s scum! It’s more than likely that their inventiveness was the downfall for some growers, with the experimental ingredients doing more damage than good. Nowadays additional feeding either comes from a diluted liquid potash feed in spring, or a slow release fertiliser like bone meal mixed into the compost.

They look their best in April & May with a rosette of healthy leaves and trusses of 7 to 11 pips (flowers). Once flowering is over they should be re-potted – no later than July ideally. By removing the plants from their pots and washing the roots you can get a better idea of their overall health. You’d notice that as well as fibrous roots there is a thick root stock, also known as the carrot. This gets longer as it ages but is most productive when kept to around 5cm long. You may also see small offsets (baby plants) growing from the carrot, they can be removed and potted up, before you pot up the parent plant, into a 9cm pot. Water well and keep checking for the first two weeks, they don’t want to be sitting in wet compost but equally not in dust. Remember that plants grown from seed will not be true to the parent plant, the only way of increasing your numbers is to grow the offsets.

If possible, keep them under some shade during the spring and summer months and don’t be alarmed if your plants suddenly start turning yellow, they tend to lose leaves in the summer when it’s hot. Keep an eye on watering as they will not appreciate drying out. By September the light levels will be reducing and they need as much as possible, so remove the shade netting or move them back to a sunnier spot. They may start to send up new trusses of flowers in autumn, this won’t harm your plants but you may choose to remove them as early as possible to encourage better spring displays.

As winter rolls in plants should be tidied to remove old leaves that could harbour pests and disease. Watering should also be reduced – slightly moist compost is what to aim for. The extremes of dusty, dry and wet, soggy compost are both bad news for auriculas. They like to ‘rest’ over cold winters and will happily freeze in their pots as long as they’re not too wet. This seems to be the reason why historically auriculas favour the north of the UK, as the south is too mild and they don’t ever fully stop growing. If they haven’t been over/under watered they should start to show their first signs of growth in February; the time that most will preen and top-dress their plants ready for a new season. Any offsets that developed over the summer should be removed at the same time and by March they should be fed with liquid half-strength potash every week to 10 days, until flowering is over.

The popularity of the auricula has been growing in recent years, with amateur gardeners seeking them out at spring flower shows across the country. There are a few specialist nurseries that still grow and breed them and most offer mail order services to those unable to attend shows. They are often displayed elevated in neat rows of shelving, creating a ‘theatre’ of blooms. Solid, dark backdrops of black are sometimes used to highlight the white pastes and meal and accentuate the brightness and clarity of their colourful pips and every now and then you spot a mirrored display so that even the backs of the petals can be viewed. Perhaps the most photographed Auricula Theatre in the UK today is the one at the National Trust’s Calke Abbey.

Their size and sheer variety of colours and form make them highly collectable even to those with tiny gardens and their bright cheery pips were nicknamed ‘painted ladies’ by the Victorians, as their markings were so crisp and rich they could have been painted by hand. They may have a long rich history but they are still very much relevant and desirable in the 21st Century.

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