HOW TO GROW AURICULA PRIMROSES

Few flowers are as amazing as the Auricula primroses. Commonly referred to as ‘auriculas’ by collectors, the plant has a rich history full of drama and quirky tales, but most impressive is that the auricula was one of the first ‘florist plants’, the term ‘florist’ even came from those who carried these rare plants in England hundreds of years ago before people began growing plants in pots. We have much to owe to the auricula, but just try to find one to grow today.

Captivating, beguiling, astounding – choose your adjective, the primrose known as the auricula, or Primula auricula (I am sure spellcheck has changed this to auricle at least 88 times within this post!), remain rarely seen in most American gardens – but why? Well, the reasons are many: First, auriculas may be gorgeous, but they are not the easiest of plants to grow well, (or even to grow poorly for that matter), second, much of the climate here in North America is terrible for these true alpines, as they are more used to conditions found in the high and dry snow covered Alps. So unless you live in Seattle, Vancouver or in Alaska, they are challenging to grow, to say the least. Thirdly, the Auricula demands precise alpine conditions which evolve into tasks required for each season. Although they are hardy to -30º, trying to keep them alive over winter requires more skill than simply being happy that one lives in a cold climate.

Wild Primula auricula on the North Face(yeah, ‘that’ North Face), on the Eiger in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland from a trip I took there a couple of years ago. These plants were growing about 8,000 in a meadow only feet from the bottom of a glacier.

Like many alpines, we can begin by looking at the wild species which themselves are notoriously fussy about all sorts of atmosphericy things – you know: billowing cold cloud mists at 9,000 feet, fresh glacial water rushing through the silty muck which they grow in, the perfect breezy, cold alpine meadow, and maybe a millimeter or 2 of Pika poop for bit of a snack – easy peasy if you live at a ski lodge high in the Alps, not so much if you live at sea level in Atlanta, or Boston for that matter. Still, the auricula captivates all who view them, and indeed, they can be ‘growable’ but many who live in the cooler parts of the country. I think that it’s time for me to kick of some auricula appreciation time here, sharing with you not only how to grow them, but where to get some as well.

Click below for more awesome photos and my tips:

Auricula primroses offer some of the most impressive flowers in the botanical kingdom, yet they remain rare in gardens and in general culture. Not completely ungrowable, one does need to do their research, and then try to find some plants.
MY AURICULA PRIMER

I am about to share with you all I know about this plant known as the auricula, just in case you are craving their beauty in your garden. As the past editor for the American Primrose Society journal, and a 15 year member of the New England Primula Society, and the current President of the North American Rock Garden Society, I have been able to get lots of experience growing these choice plants, and although I have not had the greatest of luck, I have raised a few (many), killed a few (way to many) and I continue to get more to grow (kill), but I can admit that I know many (a handful) of people who do grow them well (Amy, Susan and Judith from the New England Chapter of APS) who have proved to me that if I really wanted to, I could succeed with these lovely plants.

Here are my 8 tips on raising the Auricual primroses, or Primula auricula varieties

Border and Alpine Auriculas on the right, and on the left, some show types, a yellow ‘self’, and some striped fancies.

1. Do your homework – Learn to know the 7 types of Primula auricula, not because you will exhibit them to win blue ribbons, but because some are easier than others, and you will need to learn more about how all auricula types. Don’t worry, it won’t be boring, as the history of the auricula rivals that of the Tulip (Tulipmania). You will also benefit by learning more about primroses, or the genus Primula in general, as it can be confusing. If you are looking to raise something that looks like these images here, do not ask for a primrose at your garden center, for most garden primroses are different species. You may find a commercially grown Primula auricula but most likely it will be the wild yellow form. Fine to start with, but there is much more to know.

A fancy’ show self’ in bright red can be very impressive. Some of these plants even have leaves that are covered in white farina, which need to be protected from the rain which can wash it off.

Broadly speaking,in the world of auriculas, there are seven types – there are those known as ‘Show Selfs’ which are types with completely solid colors (a red, yellow, violet or purple flower with an impressive white, creamy band called farina on the petals). Then, there are ‘Fancy Show’ types, which can be striped or ‘edged’ types, many with velvety grey, white or true black colors in the flowers.

Double auricula can have amazing colors, including pure black, and a touch of the desirable white farina.

There are green flowered forms as well. The Double auriculas, which you must see to believe, if only for their color palette of buff, mustard, citron, green, biscuit, brown and powdery mauve) are challenging but amazing. All followed up by those known as the ‘Alpine auricula’ and the ‘Border auricula’, which are easier to grow perhaps, but often easier in pots than actually in ‘the border’, unless you live in Seattle or London.

‘Pips’ or young divisions from ‘Pop’s Plants’ a nursery in England as they look unpacked in my greenhouse in February. These will bloom in the following year.

2. Order plants from England or a Good Specialist Nursery in North America

This is a good time of year to order your auricula, and I have added some names of nurseries at the end of this post. Plants are shipped barefoot, from a few nurseries in the UK and France, and since the soil is washed off and the plants packaged well, the plants arrive in good condition. You can find a few types here in North America as well, so you will have some choices. Expect to pay 7-10 dollars US for show varieties, and additional dollars for certificates and shipping. The above order cost me about $250 but that was last year, this year, the Euro is much better, so if you are ordering from France, it could be cheaper. Come on, as if you haven’t spent that much for plants before! You can do this.

A ‘show self’ in deep violet shows how the white farina can make a blossom so striking.

I suggest these sources from the US”

Arrowhead Alpines

Annies Annuals ( only a few if one variety, but great people and plants)

Canada

Wrightman Alpines

Overseas nurseries who sell to the US

Pops Plants ( This is where I order most of my plants from) Exhibition quality plants and all the auricula types – they hold the National Collection of Auricula in England.

Barnhaven Primroses in France – their specialty remains Polyanthus primroses, but they carry some auriculas.

NOTE: I just heard back from Lesley at Pop’s Plants in the UK, and it seems the cost of importing has risen – DEFRA now charges £64.24 for and inspection certificate, and small nurseries are only allowed three per year! Then factor in that US customs requires and additional £65 for a nematode inspection and suddenly the cost becomes prohibitive. So it looks as if I will not be able to order from the UK this year (unless fellow New England Primula Society members want to chip in and combine an order – contact me if you do).

JUST ADDED SOURCE – Sequim Rare Plants

Under the COMMENTS section of this post, you will see that Sequim Rare Plants carries many varieties which many readers have ordered from. How have I missed this? Thanks readers for sharing this great source with me and other readers. I have to be honest, sometimes when I find out about places like this I don’t want to share it with the world- or at least until I place my order! Working on my order today, so I think it’s OK.

Auriculas on the exhibition bench at a Primrose Society show in Massachusetts

3. Plan on raising your plants in pots, under a roof.

Remember these conditions – Bright, Cold and Dry. Like, a mountain top in the Alps.

I recommend raising auricula primroses in pots (under protection of glass or plastic), or outdoors in an alpine garden with good drainage. They will sulk in a sunny, humid greenhouse like mine, or if planted in the damp, humus-rich garden if sited improperly, although I have seen nice clumps of certain strains of border auricula in Massachusetts growing in a well-weeded, open garden.

Wild forms of the yellow auricula and many selections from P. auricula can sometimes be found at your local nursery. Not as colorful as the fancy show types, it might be a good variety to start with.

4. Use a soil which is fast draining, yet hold some moisture.

Here is where it all begins to sound fiddly, and indeed, all of these solutions will require some fiddling depending on your climate and where your garden is located, it’s aspect and your zone. Any book on Primroses that has a chapter on auriculas will begin with the history of the auricula, which is alone worthy of a book, but eventually the author will begin to share just how elaborate soil recipes once were. Some of these soil mixes purportedly used bull’s blood, human feces and even urine as growers competed for the most elaborate recipe, as the auricula craze was nearly as insane as Tulipmania.

The home grower today need only use the Internet to find a suitable soil mix. There are many, but the best seem to use a tri blend of grit or gravel, garden soil and peat or compost. Choose your mix, just know that it should drain well, yet hold some moisture once the water drips out of the pot. I one third Pro-mix which is peat based, with a third of chicken grit or small gravel, and one third of compost and garden soil which was sterilized.

5. In Winter, find a cold, dry place for your plants just above freezing

I know of a grower in New York State who keeps her plants in a bright room with large windows which is unheated in her cellar, while I know of another grower who kept her collection in a small unheated homemade greenhouse off of a shed where the vents were kept open all winter. These are perhaps the perfect plants for homemade greenhouses which are unheated, and small. In fact, I want another one like this, since really, all you need to do is to keep the plants cold and dry in the winter, and in early spring, allow them to thaw out carefully under the protection of glass or plastic.

These growers occasionally check their plants throughout the winter, checking on watering as they will need some, and the removal of dead leaves or for root aphids, which can be a problem, but beyond that, the plants are rather care-free if kept cold and in bright light.

Primula auricula and other alpine primroses in my inexpensive Juliana-type small twin wall greenhouse which I had converted into a sort of alpine house a few years ago. Such structures can make raising these plants easier in the US.
So what is an ‘alpine house’?

The alpine house, or alpine greenhouse is just a specialized greenhouse where collectors raise high-elevation alpine plants. These houses often have vents on the sides running across the entire bench, and although they are practically nonexistent here in the States, they are more popular (and successful) in England, where they are more suited with cooler summer temperatures, more overcast days just above freezing in the winter, and where there are more alpine plant societies, and thus, a consumer base which is more educated and experienced in raising alpine plants.

5. In Summer, keep your plants as cool as possible

The challenge will come in the summer, for it is heat and direct sun that will do them in. I have kept a collection in a small, portable greenhouse for years, where I grew the plants in pots, which where kept buried in sand in raised sand beds. Ideal in England, but since sand beds make more sense with clay pots than plastic, where moisture can pass through the porous clay, my clay pots would crack as the sand froze and defrosted in the winter. Still, my plants did very well in this augmented home greenhouse, since I removed the sides after heavy snow of January and February passed, which allowed breezes to pass over the plants keeping them dry and cold, while the roof protected them from downpours.

An ‘Alpine Auricula’ may not be a fancy as a show auricula, but it can be just as striking, with more flowers and easier to winter over in North America.

6. Know what type are best for you

Alpine and Border Auriculas are a bit easier – ‘Shows’ and Doubles are for Pro’s

OK, pay attention here –

Even though the ‘auricula’ is botanically an alpine plant, there is a particular type which is called the ‘Alpine Auricula’. You will see them organized this way on auricula web sites. Don’t worry, you will learn to identify all the types once you visit Pop’s Plants website and see them organized – it’s a British nursery where I order my plants from. Those amazing,’Fancy Show’ types, like the green and grey types, the striped forms, or the super- fancy ‘Fancy’s’ and the awesome doubles are all more difficult to grow. Let’s face it, they are all difficult to grow unless they are easy for you, to be honest.

I think that the ‘Alpine Auricula’ and ‘Garden Auricula’ types are more growable for beginners. I have heard of good collections of Alpine Auricula’s in Vermont and in New Hampshire where collectors have grown them under the protection of a sheet of plexi or fiberglass, positioned over a table on the shady side of a house or barn, but it will take some practice, undoubtedly you will kill a few before you master them, but oh, the rewards of a well grown plant!

Alpine auricula have either yellow or white centers.

Still, I encourage you to try any and all of course, as some people have great luck raising them with little effort, like most things, but I cannot mislead you – but go into it with low expectations, and celebrate your successes. just enjoy the learning process, I encourage you to join the American Primrose Society, or buy any of the few books on the Auricula which exist. Just know the challenge ahead, and enjoy the process – Like tropical fish, start with guppies, aspire to raise the Discus.

7. Water carefully, as it depends on the season

I know that I have mentioned such advice as ‘fast draining’ soil and ‘dry in summer’, but don’t think that auricula like dry conditions, one just needs to be careful where summer temperatures are hot and humid. Careful watering in the summer is tricky, enough to dry off by end of day, but not enough to cause rot since one temperatures rise above 85ºF, they go semi-dormant, and will take up very little water, yet if you allow them to dry out on a hot day, they can die. I usually water by hand in the morning with a few drops and trickles, and try to keep the sand slightly damp in the raised bed.

By autumn, at least here in New England, the auricula begin to form new leaves and start to aggressively start to grow again – some even send up a few flowers. As cooler temperatures arrive in September, the plants will start to grow more, and by November, they start to look their best. This is the time to fertilize well, as plants are forming buds for spring bloom, even though you cannot see them. You will be able to water more as winter approaches. One the pots freeze (I keep the sides off of the alpine house when I had one), I only check for pots which are totally dry at this time.

Naturally, in spring, which in an alpine house or where you raise auricula’s will be February through April, you plants will need a lot of water, perhaps every day. Blooms will arrive anti me from March until May in potted plants, and in April – early June if you raise them in the garden.

In the garden, briefly – raise plants in gravel-enhanced soil, preferably in a raised alpine garden where the soil is faster draining. I recommend finding a good garden auricula variety which has proven itself as a good grower in your area. Here in New England, I have swooned over the garden auricula’s grown by the owners of Joe Pye Weed Gardens, (Jan and Marty are great!) their iris nursery is well known, particularly for Siberian Iris, but they sell a particularly nice floriferous hardy auricula that I need to get into my garden – I believe that it is on their website and catalog.

7. Enough already about ‘Auricula Theater’s – it’s not 1800

You may have heard about something called the Auricula Theater. The’ auricula theater’ was a nice idea — back in the 1800’s, but today, it’s just a folly. Well, it was a ‘folly’ even back then, really, but if you have images of tidy rows of potted auriculas in an auricula theater, wipe that out of your hear. Besides, one never really grew auriculas in them anyway, they were raised in alpine houses and brought to the theater for display only. So, if you love the ‘idea’ of an auricula theater ( an enclosed, tiered display unit often with curtains – just Google it), feel free to make one, but only use it for display.

In the end, we are left with all of the other types of primroses to grow, few are really easy, but none as difficult as the alpine forms which includes by the way, not just Primula auricula, but a few other types such as Primula allioni, Primula marginata, and P. hirsuta which all grow at the same elevation and locations as P. auricula. way too much to know right now, but in your head, just think of these types of primroses in a separate category than all others.

If you simple want primroses, the family can be confusing to understand, as most of us just know about the inexpensive potted plant one sees in the supermarket in spring.

This brown double auricula is my favorite right now, but I have just ordered a few more in the most amazing colors of mustard, putty, biscuit, tan and dusty pink.

8. Keep plants clean – of dead leaves, and check roots for root aphids

Auricula’s are prone to fungus in the summer, especially where it is humid, so removal of dead leave, and allows ones plants to nearly dry out in the summer is important. If you raise plants in a homemade greenhouse or outside under a cover, you will most likely get root aphids, which look like mealy bugs on the roots. If you commit to raising auricula, you will need to get comfortable using some insecticide or systemic poison. I suppose, since they are in pots, that it will be easier to be careful, just follow manufacturer safety directions. If you are uncomfortable using insecticide your only other choice is an organic method which rarely works, or tossing your plants and soil and starting again.

Even in the winter, plants will need some cleaning, removal of dead leaves so that rot or decay doesn’t spread to other plants. Watering will require some care, especially if you have types with foliage that has a lot of farina, which is like a white powder and can be ruined with sloppy watering. It’s all about aesthetics, of course, as it doesn’t hurt the plant, but if you are raising auriculas, obviously you care about how they look. I keep an auricula kit handy, including tweezers, medical clamps and paint brushes. I’ve been known to get a little geeky and fussy about such things.

TO CLOSE – –

If you are interested if trying a few, I urge you to get a book on the Auricula ( there are a few good ones on Amazon) or join the American Primrose Society or your local one such as the New England Primula Society, and then attend a show ( the National show will be held this year at Tower Hill Botanic Garden on May 1-3, and if you join, you get to attend a private party at our house on May 1 – just saying’. We host a party here every year for the Primrose Society exhibition.

In the end, the ‘Auricula’, or the Primula auricula is clearly not for everybody, but for the specialist grower or collector who is searching for something challenging or special, few plants compare with them for floral beauty.

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