Every season brings me a reminder of a plant that gives me amazing joy, late winter its Snowdrops but come early spring I’m all about the Auriculas!
I know I’ve covered this subject in depth before regarding the history and the show rules so I wont go back over old ground. I even had the most amazing chance to talk to the new owners of Pops Plants late last year, holders of the National collection of double Auriculas. You may have seen a feature on them in The English Garden magazine this April.
Today though I was all about Woottens, I’ve been promising myself a visit to their new base in the romantically named Iris fields, the nursery itself has had a fascinating history for what is a relatively young name in Horticulture. Before going I’d had the pleasure of reading Barbara Segall’s interview with its owners, I highly recommend reading it Barbara has a wonderful way of connecting with people and bringing them to life with her words, you can find her work here. It’s also worth noting it includes a full description of their open days and some beautiful pictures of the Iris fields in bloom… The Garden Post
Id also been one of a million people who had lurked around their stall at Hyde Hall’s plant fair last Saturday. I’m not sure dad had the same enthusiasm for the 4 exquisite little gems I came away clutching but gave me that wonderfully patient and slightly bemused look he gives me when I get a bit overexcited at a tiny plant. Given their stall had already been raided by discerning plant lovers already I was all the more determined to see the full glory of their collection… I was not to be disappointed!
I woke up late, for me, on Saturday. Phil cat had already attempted to tell me it was well past breakfast time and what kind of a human servant did I think I was! He managed to get me to look at him blurrily for about 30 seconds, get one stroke on the head and I was back out cold for another half an hour! In my defence we have had an exciting week with near on 2000 visitors through the door with NGS openings and private groups and Friday had been so cold in comparison to the previous days. I eventually struggled out of bed around 8ish, lurched round the house like a zombie with Phil shouting about food and being let out. Nursing a super strong coffee I pondered on the weather… it was vile… grey and mizzley (neither mist nor drizzle but a bit of both) I figured I would just have to make the best of it so eventually got myself moving.
However as I drove along the Essex lanes heading towards Colchester my spirits rose, the stong honey scent of the fields of oilseed rape in full bloom and its undeniable cheerful, zesty colour were turning a veritable spotlight on in my head. Suddenly the mizzle didn’t seem so gloomy and I was glad I’d ignored my grumpiness and forced myself out.
East Anglia is an area of England I’m still learning about, I have a very vague grasp of where things are. I know the Norfolk broads a bit, Ipswich too, from my childhood but I certainly can’t say I know a great deal about it so this really was an adventure. Suffolk as a county is pretty much an unknown quantity to me, my mental map has fanciful creatures and the legend “Here be Dragons!” emblazoned across it. On the map Whenhaston doesn’t look that far but driving there felt like it took longer as the A12/A14 wended its way alternately from wide dual carriageways flanked by brutalist architecture of the BT offices back to tiny hamlets with quaint thatched cottages and signs for “Table top sale held today”. I also passed tempting brown signs promising historic mills, market towns, various gardens and most oddly (I thought) a swimming pool!
The journey however did give my brain time to unwind, seeing the lush fresh growth of the trees and hedgerows was pleasant even despite the grey weather. Eventually though my sat nav warned me I needed the next turning and suddenly I found myself on a single track lane which wended its way between high hedges, left onto a very slightly wider lane then in a blink a large set of metal gates with a sign announcing Woottens. I was here!
I parked up, faffed around changing shoes, slurping coffee and grabbed my camera then followed the signs which directed me towards 3 large polytunnels, past a line of young fruit trees. Ahead of me I could see business was already thriving. People were leaving clutching their treasures and more were arriving behind me!
The first structure you reach had obviously taken some damage in the winter storms, I was later to learn this was where the Auriculas had been housed over the winter!
How heartbreaking this must have been I can only imagine but on first impression you would never know as the main body of the stock plants had been saved and held safely alongside the Pelargonium collection next door… and what a collection!
The plants in the tunnels though are not for sale, very sensibly, 7 plants of each variety are kept aside as “mother stock”. Each year after flowering auriculas produce offsets around their base. These “pups” are gently teased away from the mother plant with a small amount of root attached and then very carefully potted on. 6 months later it will have developed a reliable root system of its own and be ready for sale. The main reason for propagating vegetatively is it keeps the variety true, the pups are clones of the mother, absolutely identical in every way.
Auriculas can be grown from seed of course and if you don’t really care about being able to show and give them a name, only plants that have won a first at an official auricula show can be named, you can come up with some absolutely amazing results!
I admit im a bit of a purist when it comes to auriculas but I have succumbed to at least 2 of Woottens unofficially named plants just purely because I loved their colouration so much!
These would never make it to show standard mainly as they are Pin eyed (where the stamen, looks like a pin head, is clearly visible above the anthers) but they can be used as a valuable gene pool for breeding. After all breeder Ray Downard raised Arundel stripe from a pin–eyed seedling and ‘Rajah’ cross.
I was particularly after some more Self’s on this visit so headed down to where the sale benches were set out beside the cutest little red summer house matched at the far end by a red marquee.
There were nearly 2 benches of doubles, half of alpines, one of borders and the other of stripes and fancies. I gravitated straight to the stripes and spotted one that both myself and Philippa had liked when we’d seen it posted on Twitter earlier in the week. Called ‘Warpaint’ its the most gorgeous dusty red with delicate yellow thin stripes and a white farina center.
She was swiftly joined by ‘Violet surprise’ a yellow throated variety with a distinct farina collar, beautifully bold distinct stripes in cream and violet.
Then ‘Regency emperor’ a pale yellow narrow throat with a white background streaked amethyst purple and lemon yellow.
One more in the lilac shades ‘Orwell tiger’ such a delicate tiny flower but held in profusion above a sturdy looking plant. Hints of pale yellow ring its white collar whilst the stripes hold a tint of raspberry.
Next I moved onto the gold centered Alpines the vibrant colours of this class really catch my magpie eye. Shaded from dark to light they really are a show stopper.
This one is ‘Cuddles’ which brings to my mind that puppet from the 80’s, if you’re old enough to remember that? A ridiculous orange orangutan animated by Keith Harris… I wonder if that’s what the breeder had in mind when naming it? She has far more class than the puppet though but is equally as cheeky!
Next up is ‘Sirbol’ such a cheerful colour she shone in the overcast conditions, hints of deep rose overlay a dusky orange that fades to yellow at the far edges.
The last of my gold centered alpines, but certainly not least, is ‘Pixie’ a fine name for this ethereal beauty. A romantic rose-pink with hints of raspberry fading to dusky at the edges. The gold center is wonderfully pinked at its edges
Whilst choosing these beauties I was chatting to fellow enthusiasts, comparing my basket to theirs and vice versa. One lovely chap was looking for a particular variety which he said was his first love, something I myself can really relate to, my firsts were a double called ‘Sibsey’ and a white centered alpine ‘Kevin Keegan’. Even after a ridiculous number of years I can still vividly remember the joy these gave me. I kept ‘Sibsey’ for many years, almost 20 I think but lost her in a terrible mowing accident along with all my others. I am delighted to report she is now back in the collection and about to flower thanks to Tom and Suzi of Pops Plants… I digress!
I couldn’t see many if any self’s on the benches so I asked about their whereabouts, this is when I learned the terrible tale of the polytunnel disaster! Of all the collection the self’s had taken the worst of the battering. I can’t imagine how devastating this must have felt, to lose hundreds of your babies in one fell swoop to the vagaries of a cruel winter… but very generously I was allowed to view the survivors in the small A&E tunnels off to one side. Some of the stock plants numbers had been decimated to just one or 2.
I did however spot one or 2 to put on our “must have” list!
‘Bright ginger’ will be a very welcome addition when stock levels have risen sufficiently for her to go back on sale, light levels in the tunnel made it difficult to capture her true colour but as the name suggests she is the most gorgeous shade of ginger with a pure white collar.
Another was ‘Golden fleece’ another aptly named variety. These will join ‘Lucy Lockett’ and ‘Morello’ amongst our Self’s.
Below are some of our beauties that are already in flower at Ulting Wick, taking pictures on wet, windy days is difficult so I apologise for the quality of some of the pics but it gives you an idea.
Dont forget to check out Wootens website as they have a few Open days throughout the year worth going to, most notably their Pelargoniums which are a collection of choice, rare and species pellies and their Iris day coming up soon! Imagine a massive field full of beautiful bearded Iris all in flower, gorgeous heritage varieties. It’s an amazing sight to behold and I will most certainly be going back to see it!