Floral Perfection :: How To Make An Auricula Theatre

As soon as I saw the little auricula theatre at Sissinghurst Castle Garden last month, I just knew I had to have one.

Auricula flowers are exquisite perfection. Their patterned, multicoloured petals are dusted with powdery farina, and held high, on long, straight stalks. And they are sweetly scented, especially en masse. The leaves are a silvery green, smooth and surprisingly tough and fleshy. Auriculas were originally bred from just three wild forms of primula, and over 400 years, thanks to the enthusiasm of plant breeders, thousands of hybrids have been created.

But growing auriculas is not easy. They require very particular care and growing conditions. For the flowers to be at their best, it’s important that the plants are kept in a sheltered spot, away from wet and windy weather. Rain will ruin the perfection of the flowers, washing away the farina. What’s more, they need to be shaded in hot, summer weather, as strong sun will scorch them. So, auricula growers keep their plants under glass over winter, and only display them when they begin flowering in spring, in an auricula theatre.

I think they look lovely like that, sitting on the shelves, all perfect and pretty. And you can more easily appreciate the beauty of the flowers when they’re at eye height.

If you’d like to grow auriculas and display them in a theatre, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Wall-mounted shelves
  • Small terracotta pots (7-9cm)
  • A drill and wall fixings
  • A north or east-facing wall
  • And some auriculas, obviously.

I popped a post on a local recycling/selling group on Facebook, asking if anyone had any old, small terracotta pots that they no longer had a use for. It’s always worth trying to get things that can be reused, before buying new. As luck would have it, my lovely mother-in-law informed me that they have lots of old pots going spare!

My next task was to find a local nursery selling auriculas to fill the shelves, as they’re not the kind of plant you’ll find in a normal garden centre. A quick Google search led me to Woottens of Wenhasten, a plant nursery near Southwold in Suffolk that specialises in auriculas, among other plants. They’re only open to the public on certain days, but to my delight, they were holding an auricula open day at just the right time. This was surely fated!

I came away with nine, perfect, little auriculas, and lots of helpful advice from their auricula specialist, Sandra Sutton, about how to care for and propagate them. She suggested I start with alpine auriculas, which are ideal if you’ve never grown auriculas before. According to the Woottens website:

“The alpine group contains two smaller groups – either ‘light centred alpine’ or ‘gold centred alpines’. The flowers have one of these two-coloured eyes with petals that start with a dark colour and fade to a lighter shade. They produce many flowers per truss and are strong growers in the garden.”

The auriculas are frost hardy and will live in the garage over winter, since I don’t yet own a greenhouse or cold frame. I’m going to do my best to keep them alive!

The Woottens website has some useful information about auriculas, including how to grow and care for them, so do take a look if you’re interested. My plants cost around £30, and if I get on well with them this year, I may try to grow some of the more specialist ‘show’ types next year. These include the Doubles, Selfs, Fancies, Edges and Stripes. Aren’t the names wonderful?

The theatre itself is an an old, pine kitchen shelving unit that I found on Gumtree. After handing over £20 to a lovely old chap in the wilds of Norfolk, I had my theatre. There was a mini crisis when I discovered that the shelves were too short for the plants! But my father-in-law helped me to remove and rearrange the shelves. It was a real faff of a job, and the middle shelf is slightly on the huh, as they say in Norfolk. I do plan on fixing the shelf, and sanding and staining the whole thing dark grey, but I decided to put that job off because the flowers are only going to last a couple more weeks. I’ll sort it when they’re over.

I’ve put my auricula theatre on a north wall, which is ideal because they don’t like to be in full sun in the summer. It’s right outside the back door, so I’ll see the flowers every time I go out into the garden, and we can see them from the kitchen table when the door’s open. Once the auriculas have finished flowering, I can use the theatre to display little pots of pansies or succulents. I’m thrilled with it.

If you’re thinking this seems like an awful lot of fuss and bother for a few flowers, well, I guess it is. But no more than the bother some gardeners go to over dahlias or tender plants. And have you properly looked at them?! They get my heart beating and make me happy, and that’s what gardening is all about.

The good news is that if you love the look of auriculas, but can’t be doing with the fuss I’ve described above, you can grow border auriculas. These are happy in a window box or at the front of a border, and can be left in situ all year round.

Where to buy

Auricula Theatre at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, April 2017.

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