They might look as fragile and high-maintenance as an oligarch’s latest arm candy, but auriculas are magnificently hardy and have simple requirements, in return for which they give rich reward.
These robust plants (bred from the Primula auricula species of the snowy high Alps) very much enjoyed last winter. Normally, there comes a day in early February when they suddenly look mysteriously different, with a bloom in their cheeks, and I know it’s time to start them into spring mode with a good tidy-up and watering.
This year, that approach was a mere theory, as you can’t water plants that are either frozen solid or buried under several inches of snow. Every promising spell of bright weather was interrupted by a sudden blast in a minor key.
Now, an important date approaches, as at the end of April, at the Harrogate Spring Flower Show, the show bench will be covered in wonderful specimens bearing the desired red cards signifying awards. The judges look for regularity: a single rosette of leaves, a single upright truss of flowers, the truss itself to be even, round and fresh.
The mid-Victorian arbiter of these things, George Glenny, said that for a new auricula to be esteemed, its flowers must be ‘thick in the petal, smooth and circular, flat as a shilling’. It was as unattainable then as it is now, but that’s the ideal.
One handy thing about auriculas is that they have quite a long season. The self-coloured plants (bearing flowers in yellows, reds, purpley-blues or pink) tend to bloom early, some so early that they peak too soon and miss the show. Not to worry; they adorn the mantelpiece in due season.
The grey- and green-edged cultivars, which transfix and perplex the casual admirer, prefer to flower late, dribbling on into mid May. The late-April show date is a sort of happy medium, designed to hit a time when there are plenty of good plants in flower of one sort or another.
Yellow-flowered Brasso, red Scorcher, mauve-pink Taffeta and green-edged Tamino are usually in there somewhere. I first became an auricula devotee in the early 1980s, after seeing the marvellous displays at Harrogate. One year, I couldn’t go and nor could anyone else, because heavy snow had brought the marquees crashing down on the exhibits.
I have a plain and simple routine for growing auriculas. They live in a cold frame in 3in clay pots filled with John Innes compost with some extra sand added. I water them once a week in winter and twice through the summer. From now until September, they’re shaded in the afternoons. That’s more or less it, except for the pleasures of propagation, which can wait for another day. This is the time for admiration.
Half the fun of growing auriculas is due to their portability. If a particular plant is in flower, just pick it up and bring it indoors so that you can gaze at it while others are variously occupied. Elizabeth Kent wrote warmly in 1823 of those who ‘tend their flowers themselves, and watch over their progress with paternal solicitude’. The delicate scent gradually fills the room. Such a little ritual ends each evening when they’re returned to the cold, where they’ll be happier. The next morning, it’s back up the path to see what’s new.
Harrogate Spring Flower Show is held on April 22-25 at the Great Yorkshire Show-ground, Harrogate (0844 873 3303; www.flowershow.org.uk). Auricula specialist suppliers include Woottens of Wenhaston (www.woottensplants.co.uk), Drointon Nurseries (www.auricula-plants.co.uk) and Pops Plants (www.popsplants.co.uk) or see the ‘RHS Plant Finder’ (www.rhs.org.uk/plants)