The Magic of Auriculas

Spring Gold and the Magic of Auriculas

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Here in the south the spring has been spectacular. It arrives late, just when we think winter is never going to end, and suddenly there is a profusion of daffodils, cherry blossom, tulips and the brilliant citrus yellow of acacia.

The earlier bulbs are fading now, scillas are just about over and there are three different kowhai flowering in our garden right now. Two of them produce flowers when the tree is in full leaf, the third one flowers on bare branches and the leaves appear when the flowers are over.

This attractive tree has twisted branches, making it a suitable NZ subject for a Japanese style planting. In my garden this is a standard. Notice the small leaves.

This attractive tree has twisted branches, making it a suitable NZ subject for a Japanese style planting. In my garden this is a standard. Notice the small leaves.

This kowhai flowers when the branches are bare. The leaves come once the flowers have faded.

This kowhai flowers when the branches are bare. The leaves come once the flowers have faded.

This tree arrived as a seedling and has reached a height of about five metres in five years. This is the first year however that it has flowered prolifically. Notice its big leaves, with longer flowers than that of the tree that flowers on bare branches.

This tree arrived as a seedling and has reached a height of about five metres in five years. This is the first year however that it has flowered prolifically. Notice its big leaves, with longer flowers than that of the tree that flowers on bare branches.

Auriculas have been magical this spring. Those gorgeous, velvety, old-fashioned members of the primula family that people tell me their grandmothers used to grow, have been in flower for more than four weeks.

Once I met a florist who had a room in his house devoted to auriculas. Pictures of auriculas lined the walls, lampshades were printed with the flowers and fabric on the chairs included their blooms in its design. Look at any flower paintings by the Old Masters and you are sure to see auriculas featuring in many of them.

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Auriculas have the power to possess. At the end of the 17th century an English grower was reputed to have paid £20 for one plant – an astronomical amount of money in those days. Early in the 19th century, the growing of auriculas became an absorbing hobby in England. Growers joined auricula societies and vied with each other to present them at shows in the most elaborate stagings. But like many plants they come in and out of fashion and they don’t feature in many gardens at present. But, given a rich gritty soil they grow well in cooler climates and they possess an enduring charm.

Members of the Primula family, they were originally alpine plants, native to mountain areas across Europe where I have seen them flowering just as the snow recedes. Naturally, they thrive in cold winters.

In the past they were known as Bears’ Ears, for their wide leaves, or ‘Dusty Millers’ for the meal or sprinkling of white farina on the petals of certain varieties. In Alaska they survive for long months under a blanket of snow; in southern New Zealand gardens they tend to keep their leaves during winter, though they often look rather stressed.

They were evidently grown in Roman times and arrived in England in the baggage of Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France in the late 16th century. There they became known as florists’ flowers. Preceding the Industrial Revolution, florists were not the flower sellers we think of today. They were flower breeders – in the case of auriculas, selecting specimens they liked for their colour or shape and hybridising them to produce a perfect bloom which they could present on the show stand. Often the growers were weavers who worked at home, in terraced houses with a tiny backyard, where they could raise their flowers and where they were always on hand to tend them. Those we grow today are all hybrids with generations of man-made manipulation contributing to their family trees.

Auriculas don’t need a lot of space but elaborate recipes were devised for their well-being. Details have been passed down of a ‘brew’ used by a grower in the 16th century. It consisted of sugar, baker’s scum, nightsoil(!), sand, yellow loam and goose dung, all of which was steeped in  bullock’s blood. Thank goodness for slow-release fertilisers!

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I have a patch of them clustered behind a low stone wall and they are increasing every year. Last autumn I divided them up and they transplanted with no problems. They come in various shades of purple, red, gold, lemon and more rarely in green with a black inner rim.  They can be double or single and often have a white ring at the centre. For some reason the green ones, which of course I prefer, are harder to raise than the purples and yellows. Imagine my delight a few days ago when I found one plant shyly displaying a clump of green and yellow blooms.

If you are planting them from seed, winter is the right time as they need to go through several frosts in their seed tray before they are pricked out as small seedlings. One New Zealand grower puts her seed trays in the freezer for three weeks to ensure they are well chilled. They grow well in sun or shade and because they are low to the ground, they don’t get battered by the wind – a big advantage this year when we’ve had a succession of vicious nor’westers. One stalk of flowers can last up to five weeks. If you’re seeking particular colours, you need to propagate them by division, as they don’t come true from seed. 

So next time you’re wondering what to plant at the front of your border and your climate is chilly enough, think of auriculas and follow in the footsteps of gardeners from the past.

                

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5 thoughts on “The Magic of Auriculas

  1. John Bailey

    Hi. I’ve been looking everywhere for Auricula plants. The gardens centre here in Hawkes Bay don’t have them. (I live in Hastings) Can you tell me where I can buy some?

    I also collect Primroses, Streptocarpus, Sinningia Speciosa (Florist Gloxinia) and African Violets and I would love to add Auriculas.

    Thanks

    Reply
  2. Marcia Ringle

    I live in North Canterbury and have the red auricula but would love to have other colours. Do you know where I could buy plants or seed?
    I find mine grows best in a clay pot rather than in the garden.

    Reply
    1. Pamela McGeorge Post author

      Hello Marcia,

      Apologies for the time it has taken to reply but I have not been at home for three weeks. Hokonui Alpine Nursery in Southland has auriculas for sale. Their catalogue is available on the internet but they may not sell the plants till next autumn. Good Luck!

      Pamela

      Reply
  3. David Self

    I Hav e tried many times over the last 60 years to grow these beautiful plants in South Taranaki , but unfortunate ly after a few years I loose them, must try again some time,

    Reply
  4. Pamela McGeorge Post author

    Hello David,

    Have to admit my auriculas are not as gorgeous this year – half of them have produced great ‘Bears’ Ears’ as leaves, while the other half are just proving now that they will survive for another year. I suspect that Taranaki is not cold enough in the winter. That may be my problem too as our winter was less rigorous than usual. Hokonui Alpine Nurseries in Southland supply auricula plants – their catalogue is on the internet.
    Pamela

    Reply

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