Many people today, even keen gardeners, view auriculas as a bit of a mystery. Jewel-like and dainty, and in a staggering number of colour combinations, they seem almost too good to be true. Not so to our forbears. In our great-grandparents’ time the scented, sturdy types were widely grown at the edge of the garden path, and for centuries it has generally been individual enthusiasts who have developed new and even more beautiful forms.
Auriculas may look delicate, but they are pretty tough, and thought to be the descendents of primulas which grew in the mountains of southern Europe at up to 9,000 feet. The plants we grow today probably appeared as the result of crosses between Primula auricula, which has a scented yellow flower and a white powdery deposit known as meal or farina on its leaves, and Primula hirsuta which has no farina on its leaves and appears in various shades from red to purple to white.
The first auriculas to appear in gardens here and in other parts of Europe did so towards the end of the sixteenth century. By the 1630s, what is thought to be the first ‘Florists’ Feast’ took place in Norwich. A ‘Florist’ in this sense means someone who raises and grows plants according to a set of standards. This is what members of our Society still do today, we meet at the shows to appraise and exhibit plants, award prizes, and allow the naming of the very best new seedlings.
The auriculas we grow today number more than two thousand different varieties and are categorised into four types – Show auriculas, the Alpine auriculas, Double and Border auriculas.
These fall into several categories again, with the
GREEN, GREY OR WHITE EDGES
Often regarded as the aristocrats of the auricula world. They seem to have appeared here towards the middle of the eighteenth century and became known abroad as the ‘English Auricula’.
Their petals are comprised of leaf material, sometimes with a covering of meal which allows the green ‘petal’ to show through just a little (Grey-edged) or hardly at all (White-edged). The individual flower ‘pips’ should have a golden centre or ‘tube’, surrounded by a white ring of ‘paste’, then usually a black ground colour within the outside edge. It can take a while for the Edges to mature sufficiently to give a good flower truss. Not the best category for a beginner.
The next group are the -
Here we have a spectacular range of colours, the petals are plain, without any shading, around a central white ‘paste’ and golden central ‘tube’. Usually, but not always - the leaves and stem have a dusting of meal.
This section is a wide grouping of show auriculas which don’t quite fall into the other categories. But it’s a group which in recent years has produced some innovative and suprising colour combinations. Here are a few –
Widely grown in the 1600s, these were almost lost to cultivation when Show Edges became the rage in the middle of the eighteenth century. A few twentieth century Florists took up the challenge, produced new and robust hybrids, and thanks to them, in recent years the Stripes have returned to startle and delight. They are mostly vigorous plants which flower easily.
These come in two main types –
GOLD-CENTRED AND LIGHT-CENTRED ALPINES
They generally flower well and easily, and their petals are velvety, and shaded from the central eye to the edge. The Gold centres generally have petals in the red – brown colour range. The Light centres tend towards purple, pink and blue shades. Alpine auriculas do not have any trace of farina or meal.
In the same way that the Stripes fell out of favour in the mid eighteenth century, so too did the DOUBLES. They too were revived by twentieth century Florists, and in recent years the improvement in their form and colour range can only be described as extraordinary. Most are robust and flower with ease.
BORDER or GARDEN AURICULAS
Not strictly a Florists flower, there is no rigid set of standards for BORDER auriculas. They should however be strong growing plants, able to stand up to all weathers in the garden, and ideally have a sweet scent. Some, such as the ‘Old Dusty Millers’ are not too far removed in appearance from the wild Primula auricula.
Images© on this page reproduced with kind permission of *Chris Wood, Lesley Roberts, Steve Lobley