Everybody is familiar with bedding primrose, whose flashy blooms are used to perk up pots and beds in spring, but there's a much more desirable member of the tribe that will turn heads in gardens early in the year. Auriculas are among the most admired plants of mid to late spring. From the centre of the rosette of leaves arises a single stem holding clusters of multi-headed flowers in a range of shades and colour combinations.
Some blooms are covered with farina, a fine white powder, looking as if they have been dusted with icing sugar which gives them an otherworldly beauty.
The auricula has a long and fascinating history, once fashionable in English 'Great Houses' during the 18th and 19th centuries, they were grown by the aristocracy and fetched very high prices. They were displayed in buildings called Auricular Theatres that had an arrangement of tiered staging on which the auriculas were arranged.
Auriculas are easy to grow and a few make excellent specimen plants for a sun-room to be brought out and admired when they come into flower. An added bonus is scent which can be pronounced and delicious.
Sowing: Sow seeds in late spring/early summer or late summer/autumn.
Primula seeds need a period of cold and damp to enable them to germinate. Sow from June onwards on a surface of seed compost, cover with grit and keep in a shaded cold-frame or cool glasshouse.
Sow seed 2.5cm (1in) apart in trays or cells containing seed compost. Sow the seeds on the surface of the compost. Do not cover as they need light to germinate. Place in a light position at a regular temperature of around 16°C (60°F) Germination should take place between 21 and 40 days.
Primula seeds can also be sown during warmer times of the year, but it would be necessary to artificially simulate winter temperatures using the following method of stratification:
Place the seeds between two pieces of damp filter paper or folded kitchen roll then put into a polythene bag and place this into the fridge at 4°C (39°F) which is the temperature that most fridges are set at. Inspect the seeds after two weeks and remove as the seedlings appear, returning the ungerminated seeds to the fridge.
Germination can be erratic, although most should germinate in 4 to 5 weeks, it is not unknown for seeds still to be germinating up to two years after sowing. Remove the seedlings and place the pot in a shaded corner of the garden….just in case!
When seedlings have their first pair of true leaves and are large enough to handle, transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots containing peaty compost. Grow on then gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out. Plant them in a humus-rich, moisture retentive soil and in partial shade.
Plants should be shaded from strong light in late spring and through the summer. Pinch off spent flower heads; leave a long stalk behind to die back naturally. Cutting lower down will leave a short stub that is vulnerable to fungal diseases.
If you plan to grow auriculas in containers, start in 12cm (3½in) pots, moving them into a slightly bigger one each year. Fill with well-drained compost (a mixture containing equal parts John Innes No 2, sharp grit and multi-purpose compost is ideal) and keep the compost moist during spring and summer. Place pot grown plants in a cool greenhouse to protect them from frost and excessive rain.
In the garden an important factor is that the roots should not dry out, so incorporate plenty of organic matter when you plant, mulch well in autumn and spring and water regularly if they are in the open. Reduce watering over winter and remove any dead or dying leaves. Once established, they benefit from being lifted and divided every two years in early spring.
Bedding schemes. Indoor plants, Pots and containers.
Primula auricula is a wild flower growing in alpine meadows in the mountains of Northern Europe. The original plant is yellow with white mealing or 'farina' on the leaves. Hybridisation has resulted in the plant is now available in every colour imaginable. More than 1,500 varieties are now listed in the Royal Horticultural Society's Plant Finder.
Many Primula species have what is known as farina; the flowers are covered with a white powdery-dusting, like flour. It is produced by many Primulas to protect them against moisture loss.
The genus name Primrose is ultimately from Old French primerose or medieval Latin prima rosa, meaning “first rose". It flowers in early spring, one of the earliest spring flowers in much of Europe.
The species name auricula comes from the Latin auricula, from auris meaning "ear". It refers to the flower having ear-like structures. One of the common names ‘Bears ears’ also refers to this.
It gets the common names of Alpine Auricula and Mountain Cowslip from its origin. Occasionally referred to as Primula pubescens the word means 'downy' or 'soft' in the Latin.
At Calke Abbey in Ticknall, Derbyshire there is the only known surviving example of an original auricula theatre in this country. There is also a reconstruction of this auricula theatre at the Welsh National Botanic Gardens
The theatre is a 19ft long by 9ft high wooden frame built into a 4ft deep brick alcove and covered by a sloping roof. The interior has been fitted with tiers of shelves, where 200 different auriculas are arranged in clay pots. Theatres are ideal as air can reach the plants, but the plants are protected from rain and bright sunlight.
Today many auricula fanatics keep plants in a cool greenhouse but theatres are now back in fashion. A small ready-made three-tiered model can be purchased, but be warned they can be quite expensive so consider making one yourself. Buy a cheap kitchen wall unit made from natural wood that is fitted with two or three shelves. Simply remove the door and coat with outdoor paint and attach it to a wall or fence.
Calke Abbey – the 'unstately home':
Calke Abbey is a Baroque house built in 1704 is now owned by the National Trust. Unlike many houses owned by the Trust, it has been decided to preserve the house as a monument to a period of significant social change when hundreds of country houses were wither demolished or converted to a variety of alternative uses.
Visitors to Calke Abbey today can be overwhelmed by the immense variety of objects in the house. The house is untidy and full of eclectic clutter because the family were a wonderfully eccentric, not only were they avid collectors, but they apparently never really threw anything away either.
There's plenty to interest a gardener including the original potting sheds, gardeners bothy, greenhouses and outbuildings, a fragrant physic garden and the orangery - Well worth a visit.
The photograph was taken at the National Auricula and Primula Society Show. There are many Auricular Societies throughout Britain and the world.
For more information contact your nearest society where you will find help and advice freely given.
- Additional Information
Seed Form Natural Seeds per gram 3,000 seeds / gram Family Primulaceae Genus Primula Species auricula Cultivar Mixed Hybrids Synonym Primula pubescens Common Name Bears Ears, Alpine Auricula, Mountain Cowslip Hardiness Hardy Annual Natural Flower Time April to July. Foliage Mid green, oval, velvety, scalloped Height 15 to 30cm (6 to 12in) Spread 38 to 45cm (15 to 18in) Position Light Shade Soil Moist, fertile, humus rich soil Time to Sow late spring/early summer or late summer/autumn.