Auricula addiction

Beware the beautiful Primula auricula: if you're not careful you could find yourself seduced by its deliciously fancy ways

Pictures: Vivian Russell

Every year, somewhere in the Great Marquee at the Chelsea Flower Show, there is a traditional auricula theatre. Big or small, it never fails to stop people in their tracks. The plants are so beautiful you long for some yourself. But these exquisitely coloured and intricately patterned flowers – the result of centuries of breeding – are famously fussy. So what to do?

It’s no good talking to the experts – they will dazzle you with talk of pips, paste, farina and meal, or reel off a bewildering array of categories until you plead for mercy.

Up here in the frozen north, salvation came my way at the Harrogate Spring Show where I met the very approachable Robin and Annabel Graham who run Drointon, a specialist auricula nursery. With over 800 cultivars, this is the second largest in the country – and therefore the world – sending plants to temperate regions as far afield as Japan, Tasmania and Russia.

Annabel grew up with auriculas. They were a passion of her mother, Gill, who collected them over 25 years, just for pleasure. After Annabel had children of her own, she began selling her mothers’ surplus plants from the back of her garage. Robin was a mechanical engineer, and when they decided to establish a proper auricula nursery as a post retirement project 10 years ago, he had to learn fast.

This makes him very patient with the novice, and if I was going to conquer my fear, he was my man.

Drointon is only minutes from the A1 on the Graham family’s glorious 400 acre North Yorkshire estate. Thousands of auriculas grow here both outside and in polytunnels as far as the eye can see, and as effortlessly as radishes. When you see them grouped together like this, each one a unique gem, it’s obvious why they have fascinated breeders since the 16th century.

When I arrived Annabel was busy swapping plants with gardeners from Leeds Council who hold the National Collection of Alpine auriculas, so Robin took me round.

“Auriculas are divided into four groups,” he explained patiently, “three of which – the Alpines, Border and Doubles – are all hardy garden plants, the easiest to grow and most rewarding. One of our customers lives on the outskirts of Moscow where temperatures drop to -40, but hers are snug under a 2 foot blanket of snow and her problem is mice burrowing down to nibble the green shoots.”

Border

The Border auriculas are a fragrant, sturdy, free flowering group and Drointon has the National Collection of these, displayed in raised beds, shaded by netting. The vibrant, strong growing Rusty Red stood out, distinguished by its unusual star like markings.

Alpines

Next are the Alpines which are perfect for a rockery, and of these the sumptuous Vera, The Lady Galadriel and Sam Gamgee whose custard coloured centres fade to white as the flower matures, caught my eye. Nearby, a large wooden tub was filled with double auriculas, which went out of fashion for 200 years until the work of inspired 20th century breeders like Derek Salt, who raised Lincoln Whisper, made them popular again.

Shows

The group that give auriculas their daunting reputation are the Shows, which, as their name implies, are the darlings of the show bench with specifications so exacting, you’d have to be a bit mad to even try. Classed as Edges, Selfs, Fancies and Stripes, these plants are hardy but are best grown in a cold greenhouse as they are easily spoiled by sun and rain, and getting them to flower well can be hard, to say the least.

My favourites were the Selfs, which are renowned for their rich, velvety petals, and Angel Islington, (one of a series bred by Henry Pugh, who picked their names and colours from stops on a Monopoly board) and Lady Zoe are both vigorous.

All auriculas look brilliant as specimens in pots, and if displaying them in an auricula theatre is your heart’s desire, you can get bespoke ones. Though there’s nothing against an old pine bookshelf, erected on a north, or north east, facing wall.

But beware: if you discover you have the knack of growing them, you could find yourself on a slippery slope. Auriculas are addictive and collections of over 100 are not uncommon. With a few tips from Robin it won’t be long before you, too, will be talking pips, paste and scapes and with the best of them.

Fancy that

Like primroses and cowslips, auricula cultivars were bred from the wild primula, Primula auricula. This is a mountain flower that grows on the high, windswept slopes of the Alps, shielded from summer sun by the meadow pasture. Primula auricula was first recorded growing in Viennese gardens in 1575. Only 20 years later the first hybrids appeared in Gerard’s Herbal and new varieties have been bred ever since with a dozen or so skilled breeders adding new varieties to over 3000 already on the register.

Here’s how – Robin’s auricula growing tips

  • Avoid growing in heavy, clay rich soils. Add at least 30% grit to your soil to improve drainage.
  • Fill containers with a mix of equal proportions of Multi-purpose Compost, John Innes No.2 and 6mm Grit or Perlite. Avoid fibrous composts.
  • Never overwater
  • Keep drier in winter.
  • Guard against vine weevil.
  • Feed with half strength balanced fertilizer in spring.
  • Protect from hot summer sun.
  • If grown in a pot, re-pot every autumn.

Body parts

  • Pip: a single flower, or floret
  • Truss: a group of pips
  • Meal/Farina: derived from ‘flour’, a powdery secretion from leaves and in some cases, the flower petals. Not scientifically proven, but thought to repel insects as has astringent quality and ladybirds fly away if placed on it.
  • Paste: The ring of white chalk-like powder found between the central tube and the outside of the petal on Show auriculas.
  • Scape: stalk