Primula auricula ‘Nickity’ is typical of gold-centred alpine auriculas in that its petals tend towards warm, autumnal shades. Photograph: Alamy
Even the horticulturally indifferent cannot fail to spot the beauty of auriculas, with their neat, round faces and rich, enamelled colours. Best of all, auriculas will thrive in an urban back yard – indeed, they were brought to perfection in the back-to-backs of 19th-century industrial Lancashire. Hang an auricula theatre on a north or north-east wall (an old bookshelf will do) and enjoy these gorgeous flowers at eye level throughout April and into May.
Auriculas grow wild in the Alps: cold and frost hold no terrors, but they need fresh air and cannot abide wet feet or hot summer sun. “These are alpine plants, not beach plants,” says Robin Graham, who holds a national collection in his Yorkshire nursery. “They don’t like sunbathing or swimming.”
Many varieties have a floury deposit – farina – on their leaves or flowers. A drop of rain will spoil those pretty faces, so grow these under cover. Lesley Roberts, president of the National Auricula & Primula Society’s southern section, suggests a polythene mini-greenhouse with a zip: air can circulate and it can be closed in case of rain. Replace the polythene with shading net in summer.
Auriculas need plenty of light, especially as they come into growth, so you need to move them off the theatre if you can. If that is the only option, make the shelves 1ft deep, so you can move plants back out of rain and forward into the light as the weather dictates.
In pale-centred auriculas, such as Primula ‘Adrian’, purples, pinks and blues predominate. Photograph: Alamy
Border or garden auriculas often grow along paths in old cottage gardens, thriving in soil with some substance but good drainage. (In heavier soils, work in grit to improve drainage and plant with a collar of gravel underneath the rosette.) Foliage can be green, or dusted with farina – hence the old country name, dusty millers. ‘Old Yellow Dusty Miller’ has been charming gardeners for centuries. ‘Eden Greenfinch’ is an excellent modern plant, in an unusual greeny-brown shade. Some border auriculas grow well in pots. ‘Dales Red’ is a velvety red with a white eye; and ‘Old Irish Green’ provides the green edge deemed the apogee of loveliness.
Alpine auriculas have no vulnerable farina, make handsome clumps and are ideal for beginners. Single blooms flower best in a small pot. They have centres of gold, cream or pale yellow, and velvety petals that fade out towards the edge. The gold centres tend towards warm autumn shades, such as ‘Nickity’ and ‘Yacoubi’. In the pale centres, purples, pinks and blues predominate, as in ‘Adrian’ or luscious pink ‘G L Taylor’.
Most prized by collectors of show auriculas is the category of green, grey or white Edges – divas that require unstinting devotion. Next come the Show Selfs, blocks of vivid colour round a centre of white paste. Deep blue ‘Joel’ and pillar-box red ‘Scorcher’ are among the more obliging. The Stripes, all but lost in the mid-18th century, have returned to favour, with a host of new varieties such as ‘Robin Hood’, ‘Blush Baby’ and ‘Optimist’. Fancies are the safest bet. Sweet-smelling ‘Trafalgar Square’ offers a clear red with a dainty white edge; ‘Hinton Fields’ is yellow and green. Both flower freely without cosseting, and display a reassuring zest for life.
Small plants need small pots 3.5in as a rule, 3in for alpines.
Use a free-draining compost Roberts recommends equal measures of multipurpose compost, John Innes No2 and horticultural grit.
Feed as plants come into growth and stop when they finish flowering, using soluble feed when you water.
Keep plants well ventilated, especially in summer, when they also need shading.
Never splash leaves or flowers and water sparingly, especially in winter.
Repot every year. Divide border plants every couple of years.
Auricula open days
Drointon Nurseries, Plaster Pitts Cottages, Ripon, North Yorkshire, 3 and 28 May, 10am-4pm.
Pop’s Plants, Pop’s Cottage, Barford Lane, Downton, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 10 and 11 May, 10.30am-4.30pm.
Woottens of Wenhaston, Blackheath, Wenhaston, Halesworth, Suffolk, 19 April, 9.30am-5pm.