February 2, 2011

Yummy Auricula - YOU CAN GROW THEM TOO


Speaking of Groundhogs, the surest sign of spring is that primroses are showing up at the supermarket. We all are familiar with those green plastic pots of harsh acid yellow flowers and screaming red blossoms looking as if a circus clown designed them, all sitting squat on a plant that looks more life an African violet on steroids, then a alpine plant, these plants are specially bred for the potted flower trades, and are short lived in hot and dry modern homes. Buy them for temporary displays, and then toss them. There are far nicer Primroses to grow, and perhaps none finer than the choicest of all flowers, the Auricula.

For this post, I am going to focus on  Auriculas, or more accurately, Primula auricula, a plant native to the Swiss Alps and high elevations, but also, an important plant historically and culturally. Today, it is rarely seen anywhere, and a cold, snowy night in February seems like a good time to address the subject of ‘what are Auriculas” and more importantly,” how can I find some and grow them?” I will provide answers to all of those questions, and more.

We are all familiar with the image of the classic Auricula, they appear in old Dutch floral paintings, on teacups, I even bought a set of tea towels at Crate & Barrel last year that had some embroidered on them, but the question I get often is ; Are they real? They do seem rather artificial, with white pasty rings and true black, all contained in one high-contrast flower, but it’s true - they are real plants, and outside of a select few nurseries in North America who grow them and a couple of active Auricula Societies in England, they are are as scarce as  the rarest spice or ingredient, you could ever imagine. But why is that?  Easy answer – they are challenging to grow unless you live in England.

Auriculas are difficult to cultivate but not impossible, for all of these pictures are mine, and are from our local American Primrose Society show, so they are proof that indeed, they are growable. If you live in an area where you can provide them with the exacting conditions they require, I highly encourage you to try them.

In many ways, Auriculas are like Pandas. If you can’t provide fresh bamboo and cool temperatures, Pandas will die, for Auricula’s. if you can’t protect them from the hot, humid weather and can provide the a cold, dry winter under glass or snow, they too will die. Specialized collections of fussy plants appeal to some of us ‘plant geeks’, it’s what make growing them so appealing, the challenge!

First, you must find them. Sources are on the Internet, my favorite sources in the US and Canada are Wrightman Alpines in Canada, Mt. Tahoma in Washington State, and Evermay Nursery in Maine. In the UK, I highly recommend Pop’s Plants, for that is where I get my plants. This is a great time to order them. Another source in the UK is Drointon Auriculas, but I am not sure if they ship overseas. Another way to obtain plants, if by joining the American Primrose Society, or one of the British Societies, for although they all sell fresh seed in their annual seed sales, it is far easier to begin with plants and if there is one good bit of news about Auriculas is that they off-set prolifically. One plant, will quickly become seven plants in a year.

Once you find a source, you need to find a place where you can grow them. Some quick basics about Primula auricula – there are five types of auricula, for anyplant with a British blue blood background and 400 years of culture, has an enormous classification principle behind them – The American Primrose Society is less strict about classification, but the Brits have raised the division of this one species to an artform, without overwhelming you, all you need to know is the following, which will help you navigate the British sources on-line:
1.     Border Auriculas -are the easiest for culture in gardens, but less pretty
2.     Alpine Auriculas – nice eyes and some white farina paste, and will do well in an alpine garden, or in pots. These are the easiest Auriculas to grow in container in you want that authentic “auricula theater” look.
3.     Show Auriculas, which are sud-classified into  four categories.
a.      Edged Fancies – these have green edges, grey, whites and black
b.     Edged Shows – Many of these are parakeet green varieties with true black tones and white farina rings.
c.      Show Auricula – Solid color forms all with white rings of farina, typically, there are Red Selfs, Yellow Selfs, and Blue Selfs
d.     Stripes – these are striped in radial tones of grey, black, white , green and colors.
e.      Doubles – They look like roses, but in colors like fawn, doe, cinnamon and green.

Once you have your plants, they must be planted in the  proper soil mix, which in itself is a subject for fifty blog posts. Feel free to search online for a historic blend, for there are many to choose from, such secret Auricula soil blends as “ fresh bulls blood and urine, with bone meal and sand”. The Seventeenth Century had their crazies too, but I grow mine in a simple soilless peat mix ( ProMix) with some additional gravel or grit. No big deal. I am a bit of a crazie, since I make my own pots ( I found that stoneware pots that I throw and fire in my kiln with extra magnesium grit, tend to survive our winters better, but then again,  I am a little obsessive). You can ask a local potter to try making you some!

Once potted, you must find a place to grow them. Auriculas love cool, fresh air, and those few places in North America where they grow well, will hint to what conditions they love. Auriculas grow best in British Columbia, Washington State, and parts of Southern Alaska. I can grow them in Massachusetts, and I have a friend who grows impressive collections in New Hampshire, but it’s not easy. In the Pacific North West, the ideal location allows them to rarely freeze and at the same time, the rarely experience temperatures above 75 deg. F.

The cool Maritime air or marine layer is perfect for them ( Hello, Great Britain). In Alaska, they do surprisingly well, because Auricula Primroses can freeze hard, in fact, they can handle very cold temperatures (down to zone 3), but what they don’t like, is thawing out, and refreezing. Once frozen, they want to stay that way- frozen, and dry under layers of deep, dry snow- exactly the way they grow high in the Alps ,where they come from. And this, is the problem. Cold, dry and frozen is the most difficult environment to recreate when you live at sea level ( or in California). So you must be realistic about growing Auricula.

I will share my secrets, if you can call them that, and you can make up your own mind about growing these beautiful flowers. I grow Alpine and Border Auriculas in my raised alpine bed garden, but potted Auriculas are what we all want, so let me address how you can grow the fanciest. I had some luck growing potted Auricula in my twin-wall Juliana greenhouse in raised beds, where I plunged the pots into a sand bed. The problems I encountered, specifically the freeze.thaw cycles breaking the pots and then spring sunshine heating up the soil too early, were overcome by the removal of the sides of the greenhouse so that in the winter, the cold air could blow over the plants, keeping them frozen, but not covered with wet snow. I would actually replace the sides of the greenhouse when snow was expected, and remove it when it stopped, and the pots just remained frozen, since the alpine house was positioned in the shadow of our home.
In the summer, care was far more challenging. I kept the sides of the greenhouse off, but I would have infestations of root aphids ( they look like uglier forms of Mealy Bug, but on the roots), which required deadly systemic insecticide drop – some times, you just have to – so if you are green? Sorry, no Auricula for you. I would lose most of my collections in the summer, only if the pots were kept too wet and thusly, rot would set in. Some pots I placed in the open shade outside on the walk to the bigger greenhouse, and they did much better. The trick is, to control moisture in the summer. Not too wet so that they rot, but not so dry that they shrivel up and dry.

After blooming, Auriculas have a growth spurt, but once hot weather arrives, they go rather dormant, but retain their leaves. So just enough water so that they don’t wilt too much. Avoiding stress is key. In Autumn, if your plants survive, you are golden, for once the cool weather arrives, Auricula have a major growth spurt, and you want to fertilize and encourage this, for buds need to be formed soon. This growth will continue into late November, which is when I would normally return my pots to the sand bed under the protection of glass. In winter, simply let them freeze, foliage and all and pray for flowers starting in March.

If this all sounds like too much trouble, then clearly, Auricula primroses are not for you, but don’t fret, they aren’t for many people anymore. You can cheat. Auriculas, in England were often so cherished that they would be exhibited in what estate growers called ‘Auricuaal Theaters’, fancy wooden showcases complete with velvet curtains, backdrops and tiered steps on which the talented grower could exhibit their tiny pots of Auricula. The rules for exhibition are strict. Stamens must be longer than the pistols, and all others destroyed ( Pins and Thrums), the plants must be exhibited in 3” diameter pots, clay, with all stems removed except one, and each blossom ( pip) must be trained with cotton balls and twigs, to grow to perfection. At home, we can relax these rules a bit, unless you are really anal.

Garden Auriculas can be potted for temporary display, and to the untrained eye, they are just a lovely, but once you see a real show Auricula, you life is changed forever. It is easy to understand why in the coal-dust polluted air of Eighteenth Century England, such plants with such colors in winter became the valuable treasures of the wealthiest, and the poorest, for anyone then, could belong to various Auricula societies and exhibit with their own classes, of course.
Auriculas have an impressive history with humans, for they are one of, if not the first, potted plant grown by humans for  decoration. Excluding China, where some Cymbidium orchid species may actually be cultivated earlier than 1400 AD, the Auricula indeed was the first European potted plant that florists grew in the 1600’s. In fact, the very name ‘florist’ comes from these very men who braved the Alps to bring back some color and life into the dusty, coal-stained cities.

So if you still love the green plastic potted Primrose acaulis or P. polyanthus hybrids that are in the market now, go knock yourself out. I think they might be fine as bathroom deco, but for real knock-your-socks-off impressions, I leave that to the Auriculas. If you live in Arizona, Florida, Georgia or anywhere else where they cannot be grown, any Home Goods store will surely have enough Auricula needlepoint pillows to at least, make you wish that you lived in Victoria, B.C.!


  1. I bought a bunch of auriculas last year from Arrowhead Alpines, here in Michigan. Their catalog describes them as being the easiest primrose for the midwest, and I've been delighted to find they are right -- mine are in planted in a difficult, dry shade spot, and have been perfectly happy and care free, even reblooming a little in the fall. Summer heat doesn't seem to actually bother them much -- cool, wet summers seem to be more of an issue.

  2. This is an amazing post for an amazing plant which I suspect would not do particularly well here in the midwest. I truly enjoyed the post never the less! Larry

  3. Anonymous9:10 PM

    Curious that you were able to get plants from England with soil still attached to the roots......

  4. Hi Anonymous. The plants arrived without soil, and were washed clean. For whatever reason, the thick stem and dormant appearance allowed them to be shipped as dormant rootstalk. I am not sure if she can still ship this way with the recent changes with plant importation ( I have a permit), but she was able to send last year too, in an overnight package a set of clean, washed plantlets.

  5. Interesting! As someone who is just getting into alpine gardening I am intrigued. The arboretum I'm at just built a 2 acre g-scale railway garden. While I'm not a big model trains person the new garden has a massive "mountain" area that will be perfect for alpines. We even requested an ericaceous soil mix in one area.
    I'd love to try some primula.

    The "need to freeze and stay frozen" is a bit tricky for us as we are a zone 5 and we do the freeze and thaw dance. Perhaps I can find the right niche to put some Auricula.


  6. great post Matt, my three plants are far from spectacular, but cherished non the less! I should have divided them-they are chunky clumps at this point, at least I'll get a nice display (very un-show like!)

  7. Anonymous3:55 PM

    Dyslexic me...I read that first sentence as "the surest sign of primroses is that groundhogs are showing up in market." Yikes!


  8. Anonymous2:53 PM

    I thought I would try my hand at growing Auricula from seed. I got the seed from Thompson and Morgan's catalogue. I have managed to succeed to germinate two and am eagerley awaiting blooming to see what colour they are. Thank you for your good advice



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