Woottens nursery has been growing Primula auriculas for over 15 years and our collection has developed into one of the largest in the UK. We grow and propagate over 600 different varieties including over 30 of our own hybrids bred by our auricula specialist Sandra Sutton Auriculas flower between March-May and are very hardy. Their flowers are sweetly scented especially en masse. They make excellent feature plants displayed in pots, butlers sinks or window boxes or even your own ‘Auricula Theatre’. Some varieties are happy in the garden borders if not swamped by larger herbaceous perennials.
Woottens Auricula Encyclopaedia
Read on to find out more about auriculas, their history, classifications and how to grow, care and propagate them.
The Auricula plant is a species of the genus of ‘Primula’ and has been artfully bred over the past 400 years from just three wild forms into the thousands of hybrids we know and love today. The original ancestors are said to be: Primula auricula, Primula hirsuta or rubra and the natural hybrid Primula x pubescens.
An auricula plant is made up of constituent parts using the following terminology:
Pip – Each individual flower
Tube – Central tube of the flower holding the reproductive parts
Eye/Paste – Ring of white surrounding the central tube. In some auriculas this is covered with Farina – (Latin for flour) a white paste which in edges and fancies can cover the flower petals.
Truss – The cluster of flowers (pips) at the top of the stem
Pedicel – The smaller stem each pip is attached to
Scape – The main stem
Carrot – Main thick root of the plant
Offset – Small plants that grow off the carrot enabling the plant to be divided
Rosette – the form of the cluster of leaves at the base of each plant
As with many show plants the auricula has many subgroups to distinguish each variety.
In 2017 we are aiming to have this section of our website as a ‘search by group’ area for Auriculas. Please bear with us whilst the work is carried out.
Often misleading as auriculas are known as ‘alpine plants’. The alpine group contains two smaller groups – either ‘light centred alpine’ or ‘gold centred alpines’ The flowers have one of these two coloured eyes with petals that start with a dark colour and fade to a lighter shade. They produce many flowers per truss and are strong growers in the garden. Alpine auriculas can be planted in the border and are generally undamaged by rainfall. If left undivided they will produce many rosettes of leaves with multiple flower stems
Although once said to be the ‘lesser’ of all the groups the ‘border’ auricula has a much more subtle appearance with softer edges and unclear lines, almost like a pastel drawing delicately smudged onto paper. The petals are mainly one colour with a pale eye. This group often have shorter stems and 3-5 pips per truss. Although they can be grown in the garden, I prefer these to be displayed in pots. Border varieties have a close resemblance to the original Primula hirsuta
The first ‘double’ auricula was documented in 1665 and has tumbled in and out of fashion throughout the centuries. Popular doubles over the past 5 years have been the pastel shades of whites and lilacs, complementing the vintage phases of floristry in the 21st Century. Doubles can have quite heavy heads and sometimes require a small stick to support the stem to display the flowers to their best. They flower for longer than the other groups and are strong growers.
The self’s are Woottens favourite group, they are the closest representation of the original ‘auricula’ species and are perfect in flower form. They have petals of just one clear colour whether it’s vibrant red or dazzling yellow. The central eye is pure white and thick with farina and some even have the farina on the leaves giving them a silver powdery appearance. The flowers however are easily damaged by rainfall and should be kept in show pots away from the elements
This group are technically the rejects and mutations of auricula breeding but beautiful in appearance. If you were to breed an auricula that didn’t fit in with the stringent rules of the other groups you would categorise it as a ‘fancy’. These characteristics include, pointed flower petals. Multiple coloured unusual coloured bodies or patterns in the petals. Again these are susceptible to harsh wet weather and should be kept as show plants
The first ‘edge’ auricula was introduced in 1757 and as it sounds has an unusual edge to the flower petals. Initially the edges were seen as the Royal Family of the auricula world, unique and rich in colour. However the edge on an auricula flower is simply a mutation of the leaf tissue that forms on the flower petals. It is thick and succulent like the leaf and often covered in farina. There are three groups within the ‘edge’ category dependent upon the thickness of the farina. Green edges have a mere dusting of it, grey edges are more like a light snowfall of the white flour and white edges are coated in it. Once more to be kept aloft from the others and sheltered for show only.
The stripes were one of the earlier breeding groups recognised and have been documented since the 1640’s. The stripes on the flower must be well defined and travel from the outer edge of the eye to the outer edge of the petal. Another show group to be held with your fancies and edges. Very striking.
The pubescens group come from the original natural hybrid and hold many characteristics similar to the border auriculas and our native Primula vulgaris or ‘Primrose’ They have smaller leaf rosettes sometimes with a serrated edge and the flower stems are short. They are the earliest and longest flowering group and are easy to grow.
Woottens have been breeding auriculas for over 8 years and we now have 20 varieties in circulation. Like many auriculas they fall into the ‘fancy’ group due to their unusual forms and our inability to discard any we’ve bred just because they can’t be categorised! Each year we attempt to add another Woottens cultivar to our lists.
Auricula Care Notes
In brief auricula plants need a well-drained compost, they dislike being overwatered especially between Nov-Feb. They require shading from scorching sun in the summer but good natural daylight in the winter. They suffer from very few pests and diseases and don’t need heavy feeding.
Auriculas make good garden plants, provided you have a good loam or a clay-based soil. They will not tolerate dry sandy or thin chalky soils in which they will dwindle and die out. Although partial to a soil with some substance to it, Auriculas do not like to be too wet in winter; heavy clay soils need to be well worked and the drainage improved. In heavier soils Auriculas should always be planted with a collar of grit or gravel underneath the rosette.
Auriculas can, of course, make delightful potplants. Auriculas should be grown in a low fertility, loam based compost. We mix 50% Medium Peat (or peat substitute) with 25% Grit and 25% Loam. Lime and 12 month slow release Osmacote should both be added at 150grams per 100 litres of compost. Never overpot Auriculas; their natural habitat is clefts of rocks in the Dolomites. Young plants should be grown in 7cm, mature plants in 9cm pots.
When Auriculas come into flower, if the weather is inclement, flowers can be protected from rain and frost with an open-ended cloche. Auriculas in pots are best kept sheltered from wet and windy weather. After plants have flowered, plants should be shaded through the hot summer months. In the winter Auriculas are best kept under glass. No heat is needed in winter and the vents in the greenhouse must be opened on a daily basis. Auriculas will tolerate temperatures to -15 degrees or more. If a glass house is not available a cold frame is adequate, provided it is ventilated daily and the pots are placed on a bed of gravel.
Watering & Feeding
From October to late February plants should be kept almost dry. Watering and feeding in a warm, sunny spring should commence in mid-February. Use a high potassium low nitrogen fertiliser every two weeks till flowering finishes. If light levels are poor, delay watering till the end of February. Avoid overhead watering as this will spoil the blooms and wash off any decorative farina from the foliage. Watering from March to June should be liberal. During the summer water in the evening when it is cool. Auriculas hate having their roots sitting in hot soggy compost; the roots will literally drop off.
Propagation & Potting
Auriculas should be repotted annually in late August. Remove all the old compost from the roots, split the clumps if necessary and repot. We propagate all our auricula plants by division each autumn. Any offsets can be easily teased off the main carrot root and potted up. Always make sure you have a section of root, main carrot root and leaf to make a viable new plant. After division we sometimes feed the young plants with a high phosphate feed to encourage strong root growth.
Plants benefit from the removal of dead leaves at all seasons, but particularly in winter, as decaying foliage is then most likely to become infected with botrytis. Plants should be deadheaded after flowering as open pollinated seed is of little value and seed production consumes valuable energy. When deadheading, remove merely the flower. Cutting the flowering stem at base can result in fungal infections. When the stem has withered, it can be gently plucked without any risk of infection.
As with all Primulas, auriculas can be troubled with vine weevil, however we find that repotting once a year is an effective preventative method. In the warmer months you can use a predatory nematode to kill the larvae. Auriculas kept inside can also be prone to red spider mite or two spotted mite. We control this using a biological insect called Phytoseiulus but cultural controls just like damping down your greenhouse and removing infected plants to outside work well. See the RHS website for details on vine weevil and red spider mite
If you have any questions about auricula problems, growing or propagation you can email our advice line using firstname.lastname@example.org
The history of the auricula
The wild auricula is to be found growing throughout the European Alps and has been collected for distribution and cultivation since the 1400’s. One of the first descriptions of the auricula in English garden literature was in Gerards ‘Herball’ 1597
“this beautiful and brave plant have thicke, greene and fat leaves, somewhat snipt about the edges, not altogether unlike those of cowslips, but smoother, greener and nothing rough or crumpled; among which riseth up a slender stem a handful high, bearing a tuft of flowers at the top of a faire yellow colour.”
The common name for the auricula was ‘Bear’s Ears’ (auricula ursi) which we believe was due to the shape and downy texture of the leaf.
In the 16th & 17th Centuries the breeding of these wild forms advanced rapidly, in Thomas Hanmer’s ‘The Garden Book’ or 1659 he describes some 50 cultivars in an array of colours. Protestant Flemish weavers bought many auricula plants to England when fleeing persecution in the Netherlands. They settled in northern and eastern areas of the UK and continued to grow and breed auriculas.
By the end of the 17th Century striped and double flowering auriculas had become common place in these breeding extravaganzas which were increasing in popularity and scope. Auricula ‘shows’ were rivalling the Tulipmania in 17th Century Holland and enthusiasts were hybridising and showing 100’s of Auriculas across the country. These amateur botanists were known as ‘florists’ at the time and their aim was to create the perfect auricula flower. These florists were mainly men, some descendants of the Flemish weavers, others nurserymen and other enthusiasts from all walks of life. The rules of the show were very strict and each plant had to be flawless.
The photograph below of the Florists was taken in 1896 at the Botanical Gardens, Old Trafford, Manchester
The first ‘edged’ auricula was introduced in 1757 ‘Potts Eclipse’ and it is from this variety we believe that all other edged auriculas were produced. The green petals of an edged auricula are actually a mutation of leaf tissue and resemble the thick succulent foliage of the plant.
In the nineteenth century Auricula breeding became a prevailing passion among the miners and weavers of Cheshire and Lancashire. A Mr Bamford writing in 1935 in “Gardening Illustrated” recalled his late nineteenth century memories of Middleton, the capital of Lancashire auricula growers:
“The Show Auricula was grown extensively by the old handloom silk weavers of Lancashire, a generation ago. At that time they were not troubled with the smoke and pollution we see today and generally they were their own masters. They could therefore spare the time during the day to walk into their gardens and attend to their Auriculas, and often to make up for lost time during the day the shuttle of the loom could be heard clicking until dusk.”
It was in this Victorian era that the use of the ‘Auricula Theatre’ came into play – with each grower wanting to display their auriculas to their best, they would commandeer carpenters to build them ornate wooden shelving to show off their prize plants During the early twentieth century the passionate artisans who bred and tended Auriculas virtually disappeared, wiped out by two world wars and industrialisation. It was not until the1960s that interest in Auricula breeding and growing revived.
Auricula Events & Societies
Each year Woottens holds an Auricula Open Day in April where you can view all our Auricula plants in flower and talk to the specialist about growing and propagating these exquisite plants. See our events page for details
We also run an Auricula Course around the same time where you can learn the history of the auricula how to breed the plants and a ‘have a go session’ at propagation. See our courses page for details Below is a ‘YouTube’ video of Sandra showing you how to divide Auriculas:
There are many societies across the country dedicated to Primulas and Auriculas that you can become a member of – these include:
The National Auricula & Primula Society Midland & West Section
The National Auricula & Primula Society Northern Section
The National Auricula & Primula Society Kent Group