Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Auricula: How to grow them, for beginners

Have you ever wanted to have a display of Auricula? They are so lovely, so cheerful, and you often find displays of them in gardens which are open to the public: traditionally, as they are quite small plants, they are displayed in tiers, sometimes on purpose-made racking, sometimes on home-made versions.

Here's one which I found in a "yellow book" garden.

It looks as though it needs a bit of attention, not to mention a new coat of paint, but let's be tactful, maybe they were going for the rustic look.

I did rather like the blocks of stone at the front, to level it up.

This one is definitely rustic!

Using an old wooden step-ladder, it displays a large number of plants in a small floor area, which is very efficient, and also offers quite a saving to the poor gardener's back, which is no bad thing.

I didn't check, but I assume it was attached to the wall, to prevent, er, accidents...

And here's another, this time a really pretty one, with a decorative scalloped roof, and bars to prevent accidental fall-out.

As you can see, part of the display style is to have only one plant per pot, and apparently, it is considered de rigueur (pretentious phrase meaning "the correct/stylish thing to do) to use only hand-made terracotta pots, not the modern machine-made ones.

Also, if you do any research on them, you'll find a lot of scary detail about how they have to be kept under cover to avoid spoiling the "meal", how they must be protected from the sun, the rain, the wind, etc etc.

All of this - the display stands, the hand-made pots, the "ooh, fussy about rain" - can give the impression that they are not something which the average garden owner can do.

Not true!

They're actually very, very easy to grow, if you start with straightforward, fully hardy ones.

I have a lot of Auricula myself, in just three colours: none of them are the super-fancy ones, in fact only the yellow/gold ones have any degree of "meal" on the leaves, and even they don't have much: which means that these guys live in my cold, east-facing front yard outdoors, all year round, with no problems at all.

They are easy to propagate, which means that I can sell off the spares, along with words of encouragement (errr, I sell the plants, the words of encouragement are - as always - free)...

 Here are some of my current spares, in the three colours of gold, pale lilac and deep purple. All this lot started from just one of each colour.

So, what's an Auricula, then? It's a type of primrose. Primula auricula, to be exact.

The official word runs thus: *puts on plummy BBC accent* "Horticultural Group Auricula section primulas are evergreen perennials with leathery, often farinose foliage and simple umbels of salver-shaped flowers which are usually pink, purple or yellow".

Wow, way to go, RHS, make a beautiful flowering plant sound dull as ditchwater.

Let's break that down:  evergreen perennials mean that they have green leaves all year round, unless it's a really hard winter: and they come back year after year, so they are very good value.

"Leathery, often farinose foliage"  means that the leaves are thick and fleshy, and "farinose" means that in some species, the leaves are covered with a dusty coating, which is often called meal or mealy. This is the bit which needs protection from the rain: rain ruins the mealy coating.  This coating is also the reason that Auricula are often known as "Dusty Miller".

The flowers are held on single stalks, with a group of open, flat, plate-like flowers on the top.

Right, that's the botany out of the way. So, how do you start collecting them? Well, you buy one or two, making sure you buy hardy ones, and preferably ones without the "mealy" or farinose leaves.

After a while, or straight away if you buy any from me (*cheeky grin*),  you will notice that the original plant is now producing baby plants, or "pups" as they are called.

Here's one of mine, showing three good healthy pups growing on the stem.

To propagate, don't cut them off: instead you gently pull off the "pups": if you are lucky, the stalk of the pup - the brownish part - will come away from the parent stem to reveal small roots already formed, they seem to slide out of the parents' stalk.

If you can enlarge this photo, you can just see a couple of aerial roots already forming on these pups, from the base of the pair of pups on the right.

If there are roots, then pot up the pup just as you would a normal plant - ie in a small pot to start with, gradually potting on to bigger pots as they grow.

If there are no roots, that doesn't matter, just pot them up the same way: fill a small pot with damp compost, and push the pup in to about half of it's length. Then leave it to grow, potting it on as it gets bigger. In no time at all, you will have a selection of large flowering plants, and another selection of spares, to swap!

It's remarkably simple, isn't it?  Considering how beautiful the flowers are, I think these are some of the easiest plants to grow.

To display them, just build or buy any sort of tiered shelving, preferably one whose shelves are just big enough to take the small size of terracotta pot: if your shelves are too big, too deep, or too far apart, then the plants look small and insignificant. Wire shelving units are often sold for conservatory plants, and these are usually just the right scale for Auricula. Or just find an old wooden stepladder!

Annoyingly, people used to just throw these away, but now they have cottoned on that there are many ways to use old wooden steps in the garden: not for climbing up, but for growing containers of veg in layers, so now you find that you have to buy them, even if they are paintstained and/or virtually falling apart. If anything, you now have to pay more for a really decrepit set, so scour your shed, and those of all your friends and relatives, to see if you can find one for free.

Once you have acquired a display rack, and have collected a few plants, set them out neatly and enjoy them.

Winter maintenance is very simple: check them every couple of weeks or so, to make sure they are not drying out, particular if your Auricula Theatre is against a wall, as it might be in rainshadow.

Although they are mostly evergreen, they still lose their leaves, so when any leaves go yellow and flabby, just take a pair of small scissors and gently snip off the yellowing leaf, as close to the stalk as you can.

That's pretty much all there is to it! But if you do have any questions, do please feel free to ask me.

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