April 13, 2006

Precious and Few: Auricula

The above gold centered form of a seedling which I started is not acceptable since it doesn't meet show standards for exhibition, since it is considered a "pin" and not a "thrum" referring to the stigma which sticks out far ( I know, those fussy Brit's again!), but of note, Primula auricula are already blooming in the rock garden, much earlier than last year, which is not surprising given the mild winter that we have had here in New England. As I said in an earlier posting, of all of the Primroses available, the Auricula type are the most choice and rare. Just try to find one. All Primula auricula prefer a mild to cool climate, and unfluctuating temperatures similar to what one gets in the British Isles. They can also be grown where they would get a solid deep freeze with out thawing, so surprisingly the plants can be grown very nicely in Alaska but are more difficult in my Massachusetts garden where they are exposed in January thaws, followed by sudden deep freezes as well as hot and humid summer temperatures. If you live in North America, the best success is achieved in the Pacific northwest where the winters are mild and the summers are cool.

Auricula primroses are worth the extra effort though, since they are indeed the race horses of cultured plants, and they are undoubtedly one of the most iconic reproduced flowers, reproduced by designers looking for that classic English look. One frequently sees them on needlepoint pillows and fine porcelain plates, but they are also something that one rarely ever sees live, in person. A first encounter is always a visual gift, since only a handful of people in the United States grows them, and even in England, they are left to the specialists.

Understanding their cultural requirements is essential though, in order to have any luck growing them. There is no faking through the process. Briefly, do homework on the basics.

1. Once you find a source, order them in September.
2, Pot them in a fast draining mix, there are many recipes online. Heavy on the Perlite if in doubt.
3. Plunge the pots in sand in a bright, but not sunny place, in a cold frame, alpine house or under a glass pane to keep the rain off of the leaves and flowers.
4. Let them freeze all winter, pull off any yellowing leaves, don't let them dry out nor get too mucky.
5. In Spring, new growth will start. Check for wilting leaves, a sign of root aphids (white, Mealy bug-like insects on the roots) Toss the plants out if infected, or use an insecticide carefully following manufacturers directions)
6. If buds form, enjoy the flowers, water daily being careful not to get water on the leaves or flowers, this can cause rot and wash the white distinctive 'farina' off of them.
7. Fertilize in spring and early summer with a high nitrogen or 10 10 10.
8. In hot summers, keep out of sun, and don't let them dry out. They plants will sulk in heat, but will recover with the onset of cool weather in Sept.
9. In Sept. repot in new soil (and check for insects again), new growth becomes strong in fall, and sometimes a few flowers bloom.
10. Divide when reporting, removing all suckers to pot up for more plants, and cut the carrot-like main stem shorter, to repot deeper to keep in scale with the pot.

The most growable are Border Auricula, which can be grown outside in a rock garden with alpine soil (fast draining), but the most beautiful are certainly those known as Show Auricula.
These must be grown under glass to protect the ring of white farina paste that makes the show Auricula so unique (see the red flower in the previous post).

Other Auricula types are Show Fancy Edged, often with green or grey edges and white farina, and some with grey or black rings, and Show Striped, with colored dark stripes, farina and edges that are green or grey. Double Auricula are becoming popular again, since the colors are so unlike anything else. I avoided doubles until I saw a display at the Chelsea Flower Show in England. Personally, I am attracted to the puce, muddy and brownish grey colors that many Auricula offer (although there are more common purple and bright colors) I just feel that the more unusual shades are what make the Auricula so interesting.

Only a few nurseries carry show Auricula in the U.S. (well, more like three, although Heronswood Nursery does carry a few garden Auricula on their web catalog), the two sources are Mt. Tahoma in Washington and Alpines Mont Echo in Quebec. Both have catalogs that you can order online, but don't have didactic web sites so you would have to print out an order form. Still, both are excellent nurseries offering supreme cutivars of this hard-to-grow plant.

With a little effort you can order them from England, like I do, or better yet if you are adventurous, you can grow them from seed, since excellent seed is offered through the annual seed exchanges that the American Primrose Society offers free to members.

If you just want to see these in person, then consider attending the National Primrose Society National Show held this year, on the east coast, in Boylston, Massachusetts just an hour west of Boston and the impressive and newly built Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Friday May 5th until May 7th. There you can not only see and photograph many plants in the primrose family, you can join the APS and tour the Botanic Garden and even buy some Primula from growers and members who will be there.

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