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Cornucopia - Auriculas

Auriculas - a talk by Jennifer Harmer
Peter Hart

Jennifer’s interest in auriculas was fired by her first purchase of a book on garden plants, and over the years this has become a real passion. There are a great many varieties, with over 1000 cultivars listed in the current Plant Finder, and a dedicated band of enthusiasts who grow and exhibit this particular genus.

The wild auricula can be found in the alpine meadows of northern and eastern Europe but first appeared as a garden plant around the middle of the 16th century. However, much earlier, the first references to its use as a herbal medicine date from the times of Dioscorides in the first century AD. The first hybrid was Primula pubescens, a cross between Primula auricula and Primula hirsuta, and intensive breeding over the last 350 years has resulted in a vast range of different forms and colours. Interest in the auricula was particularly great in the 19th century where show specimens were often formally displayed in theatres, such as that which can be seen at Calke Abbey. Numerous paintings of the period often feature auriculas when plants and flowers are included and specialist nurseries and breeders came into existence, of particular note the Douglas family spanning three generations.

Many of the early hybrids have disappeared from cultivation and the green edged varieties in particular are not particularly stable and change or break down after a period in propagation. However a number of the early popular varieties can still be obtained and are still excellent cultivars, eg 'Old Dusty Miller' (yellow or purple). Striped and doubles lost their popularity in Victorian times and when Jennifer started growing auriculas in the early 1970’s there was only one double available. However, modern breeding has re-introduced them and there are now many good varieties to choose from such as 'Arundel Stripe', 'Lord Saye and Sele' and the double 'Devon Cream'.

Auriculas are split into four categories – alpine, border, double and show varieties. All are fully hardy to low temperatures and the border varieties are fine in the garden but the show varieties need to be protected from rain. The show varieties are subdivided further into edges (green, grey or white edged), fancies, stripes and selfs. Show auriculas have a white central core (farina or ‘paste’) around a yellow eye and then the remainder of the petal determines its particular show class. Edges, fancies and stripes are largely self-explanatory, selfs have an outer single colour with a wide range of colours available.

Jennifer showed us pictures of a wide selection of different cultivars, far too many to list here, but I did note those which she claimed were her favourites. 'Argus' raised by local Southampton breeder J.J. Keen around 1890 is a rich crimson red alpine and Jennifer’s all-time favourite, 'Walton' (not to be confused with the inferior double 'Walton Heath') is a soft lavender, 'Moonglow' is a pale yellow self, 'Paradise Yellow' a favourite border variety and 'MacWatt’s Blue' is a dark blue border variety. Others to note included the easy to grow maroon alpine 'Prince John' and the pretty cherry pink 'Mojave'. 'White Wings' is very easy to propagate but best avoided as it rarely flowers. A selection of the varieties shown were displayed in a basket.

To grow auriculas to perfection requires a certain amount of attention and an annual repot. When life begins to stir in January or February, the plants should be watered and tidied and fed first with a high nitrogen feed and then with tomato feed until the flowers start to form. Repotting was traditionally performed in June but Jennifer now recommends repotting in August to break or deter the vine weevil life cycle. Vine weevil is a major pest problem these days and she waters with Provado during March and again in September/October. Another pest problem is woolly aphid on the roots, which is treated with methylated spirit during the repotting process. Jennifer used to grow around 300 auriculas but this proved too time consuming. She now grows around 80 and repots using a production line style of process. Mature plants are potted into ‘long tom’ clay pots about 3.5 or 4 inch diameter and spent compost is bagged and removed to the council tip to prevent any chance of vine weevil escaping into the garden. After washing and trimming, the roots are soaked in Rose Clear systemic insecticide and fungicide before repotting.

Auriculas are propagated vegetatively from offsets which are potted initially into small 2 inch pots. These are grown on into 2.5 and then 3 inch pots before transferring to the clay pots. Auriculas perform best if the roots are constricted and are not over-potted. Jennifer’s potting mixture comprises 2 parts of John Innes no. 2, 1 part of peat based or peat-free multipurpose potting compost, 1 part of Cornish grit, and a small amount of added charcoal and slow release fertiliser, a handful of each if mixing a quantity on the potting bench.

As always, Jennifer’s talk was most interesting, informative and well presented. It always amazes me how she speaks so authoritatively on such a wide range of plant topics.

First published in the Hampshire Group Newsletter, Summer 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 29.
© Copyright for this article: Peter Hart

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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