Spring Gold and the Magic of Auriculas
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.
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.
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!
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.