Imagine a small normal suburban street, it could be any street in England, with a row of upmarket terraced Victorian houses. From the outside, anonymous, utterly normal. You could never guess what an amazing, magical delight could lurk in the back garden….
This is exactly what I found when I visited the lovely historic market town of Hitchin in late November. Hitchin was somewhere I knew well as a child, mum adored shopping there. I think the last time I visited would’ve been about 25 years ago and as I drove in there were some parts that seemed incredibly familiar, that funny road junction that dad hated, the old wooden beamed house that leans out precariously towards the road but subtle changes have taken place. As they always do in towns you haven’t seen in a long while, a new sainsburys, coffee shops where once a haberdashery once was. It’s always an odd feeling, vaguely twilight zone.
I had come with a purpose though!
My love of Auriculas had drawn me to this quiet, sleepy town. A chance follow on Twitter from a chap called Tom Morey, I noticed his @ as I scanned his profile and for some reason it rang a bell with me but what got my attention was the most gorgeous Auricula on his Twitter feed. I asked its name. Turned out it hasn’t, as yet, earned one…. An Auricula can’t be named till it’s won a show, Tom replied saying he would be entering it this coming year! He seemed a lovely chap & his feed was full of pretty Auriculas so I followed back… the penny still hadn’t dropped as to the significance of his @
A few days passed, I chatted to another chap ive known online for about 10 years now, Rhizowen, and the subject of my destroyed Auricula collection came up. I was living in a flat that had a communal garden, quite frankly it was awful but that’s by the by, my precious Auriculas which had survived multiple house moves, neglect and vine weevil attack were sat outside my flats windows. A small little ray of sunshine for me in what was a bleak place. One day on returning from work I filled my watering can and wandered outside, noticing the mow men had been and cut the grass, I turned the corner…. Horror!
A crime scene, destruction, wholesale mutilation… I stood not quite comprehending what I was seeing, it made no sense. Shattered terracotta fragments littered the grass, small shrivelled baked shreds of what could once have been plant material, compost and gravel strewn across the floor under my window and strips of black plastic pot …. Gradually the full horror sank in, the mow men had mown my Auriculas, gone straight over the top, pots and all!
To this day the wholesale destruction still amazes me (& breaks my heart) I’d had some of those plants since starting Ryton! Sibsey in particular was the love of my life but now gone… anyway, back to the present day!
Tom popped into the conversation empathising with my grief then did something totally unexpected and hugely generous! He offered me some of his Auriculas! My jaw literally hit the floor. The conversation rapidly switched to DM where on talking to him further the penny finally dropped… @Popsplants2, his twitter handle. Bear with me here, Pops Plants were a huge name in Auriculas for any number of years and I’m 99% sure that it was from them I bought Sibsey at the Malvern show. Pops Plants were owned by Lesley Roberts & Gil Dawson, they were not only responsible for holding the national Auricula collection but also for breeding, introducing & showing many new varieties … Their show medals would be tucked around the doorframe in the kitchen Tom tells me…and i was now talking to Lesley’s 2nd cousin Tom who had taken over the collection of doubles when herself & Gil decided to retire earlier this year! This was an opportunity to go and see the collection that I just couldn’t miss!
So off to Hitchin I went!
Tom and his business partner Susi Clarke took on responsibility for the collection in May 2017 after receiving full tuition from Lesley & Gil on how to look after and propagate the collection. Susi’s husband built the most wonderful standing out Auricula house and it’s from here that Susi and Tom are rebuilding Pops Plants (hence the Twitter handle). It’s a remarkable undertaking for 2 people with full time jobs, families and a shared love of Auriculas.
They are currently building their stock of Auriculas up, mainly doubles at the moment but looking to expand into the fancies, striped and self’s and have just listed with the RHS Plant Finder. They also will be running a mail order business via their website popsplants2.co.uk
All of this plus holding down full time jobs & family lives keeps them very busy but you will still find them selling their plants at various fairs and markets! Here are some of the upcoming dates
Hitchin craft market – 16th Dec 2017
Southern Auricula show, old barn hall, Great Bodeham – 28th April 2018
Rare Plant fair, Winterbourne – 20th May 2018
As more dates are added to their calendar they will be added to the website so keep checking in!
Some of the original plants from pops plants can be now seen at Hampton Court.
Tom & Suzi also told me some hints and tips for growing Auriculas, a couple of which id never heard of before! Firstly, there is a thing called ‘Auricula finger’ this is not as entertaining as it initially sounds. Auricula leaves are covered in very fine hairs, when you’re potting on a lot of them, or have particularly sensitive skin that is prone to irritation it’s advisable to wear latex gloves as the hairs can irritate. Apparently the feeling is akin to pins and needles. Ive never experienced it myself but then I’ve never had to handle as many Auriculas as they do…. Also, I have the skin of a rhino & the only thing I’ve ever reacted to is fig sap, a nasty phototoxin!
Also the farina (the white dust often present on Auriculas) can cause a mild rash on particularly sensitive skin or through prolonged exposure. As with all plants there is a small chance that you can react so don’t worry overmuch about these things, more just be aware.
We had a chat about the shows too, they can be incredibly competitive! People love their Auriculas and in order to be able to name an Auricula it has to have won at a show which means that if you see a named variety it really is the best of the best!
This can sometimes lead people to resort to tricks which I would never have believed! The poor judges have to look out for things such as icing sugar or talc being used to accentuate farina or hairspay or glue being used on the anthers to make them more prominent! Madness!
As for the care of your Auriculas, Tom describes this as being ‘wilful neglect’ which I think describes my methods with both Auriculas and Orchids & is incredibly successful.
I often hear people saying they struggle to keep them alive and 90% of the time it’s because they love them too much. To understand their history is the key, they are bred from true alpine dwellers, high up In the mountains. Cold isn’t a problem for them, they happily survive below freezing temperatures and although they look dainty and frail are truly tough as old boots but drainage is key to their survival. Their ancestors grew in rocky positions, with only the barest sprinkling of topsoil, one of natures true survivors!
My Auricula Mix
There are probably as many different mixes as there are growers but this is one that I’ve found works incredibly well for me. I’ve found over time that although they will grow in plastic pots they thrive in the traditional terracotta you tend to see them exhibited in. The terracotta allows them to drain and breathe so much better than plastic and if you’re growing them outside without a frame above to keep rain off then it becomes even more important.
First, I start by selecting a small pot, this is important as whilst they build up a root system it means they don’t have to sit in cold, wet compost, an absolute killer for them.
Second, I add a good layer of drainage, I use horticultural grit, this allows for the bottom inch of the pot to drain freely. If you don’t have this ready to hand you could use pebbles, gravel or even hydroleca (expanded clay bobbles) or at a push polystyrene, basically anything that won’t hold water and has sufficient gaps for water to pass through quickly and easily.
Next I mix the growing medium itself, I tend to use a peat free compost, in this case Dalefoot compost. Dalefoot is made primarily from composted sheep’s wool… yes, sheep’s wool… and its awesome!
Unlike other peat free composts it has a wonderfully smooth consistency, no chance of getting splinters in your fingers here and it doesn’t have an overly acidic level to it which can sometimes be a problem with other peat free mixes due to their high levels of pine bark.
To this I add generous amounts of grit, as a rough approximation about 40% but I do it purely based on sight and feel.
As an extra help, to retain more nutrients within the mix I add some perlite. Perlite is a type of volcanic rock. It should not be confused with vermiculite which is very similar but retains more moisture. The nutrients will be absorbed by the perlite which the roots can then affix themselves to but will still allow for water to pass through easily. I adore perlite, it has so many uses, from sowing fine seeds, taking cuttings to mixing into composts for pelargoniums, orchids and of course Auriculas!
Next I add a little bit of magic! Forget miracle grow which is basically sweeties for plants, I want my plants to grow big and strong on the horticultural version of my mums hotpot! Don’t get me wrong, chemical fertilisers have their place but should be used sparingly if at all. The problem with them is not just the environmental impact they have but also what happens to a plant raised on them. Imagine the plant is your child, you’d feed them good solid food, right? Something that would give them the energy to grow, all the major food groups and trace elements, vitamins etc. Yes sweets give them energy, they run round like maniacs for a few hours but then the sugar crash! Grumpy, sulky, tearful… and that’s just the parents!
I want these plants to put down roots first then bulk up vegetatively. If I do this right, come spring I will get an amazing display of flowers.
Here comes the science bit!
In order to encourage a plant to put on vegetative growth I need to make sure it has plenty of Nitrogen, preferably released slowly. For this I use pelleted chicken manure. I’ll be honest with you for the first week a sensitive nose can detect a certain whiff of farmyard but it very quickly dissipates & isn’t overpowering. For the 11 plants I made this mix for I used under half a cup, it really isn’t necessary to overfeed.
Then I add another great Organic food, powdered seaweed. Packed full of trace elements it has an average NPK of 1-0-4… I say average as it can vary slightly given that its an organic food.
NPK stands for Nitrogen, Phosphor & Potassium, the 3 main nutrients needed by plants… other than water & air, of course. Each has a different role to play and a good way to remember their uses by the plant are
- Nitrogen – leafy growth
- Phosphor – flowers
- Potassium – fruit & root
With these added I now mix thoroughly. (those of you who are on the ball will have noticed in the pics I did this backwards!)
When filling the pot I allow a cm clearance from the compost to the base of the plantlet, this will be top dressed with more grit to level with the pot. This has 2 main advantages, again drainage, so moisture doesn’t sit round the plants neck and cause it to rot off. Secondly, and this is something we haven’t touched on yet, the main reason that last 10% are lost… the dreaded Vine Weevil!
I have found a good layer of grit puts vine weevil off laying its eggs as direct access to the soil and therefore the roots is prevented.
Also it has an aesthetic purpose, it just looks right, with Auriculas it’s all about the show!
A final note about Auriculas, they can suffer from a few problems, as I mentioned before vine weevil. Prevention is always better than cure in this case so treat with Nemasys vine weevil prevention as soon as the soil temp is above 15 degrees in the spring and then again in autumn before temperatures drop. If your plant starts looking a bit wilty despite watering then tip it out and check its roots for the beastly little grubs & squish them to death if you find any!
Another is root aphid, this can be an awkward one to deal with as they hide right inside the base of the rosettes. You have 2 real options here, one use a systemic insecticide (with great care that other pollinators are not present so either very early morning or late evening) the benefit of a systemic is it gets into the “bloodstream” of the plant & will continue killing the sap suckers for up to 10 days breaking their lifecycle. Contact insecticides rely on you being able to target the pest which can be difficult if you can’t get to them.
Your second option can risk the plant a little it involves taking the plant from its pot, disposing of the compost and washing the base of the rosette in just very slightly soapy water. When I say wash, I don’t mean scrub the plant rather just sluice it completely. Why soapy? Because soap acts as a wetting agent, it makes water wetter. Greenfly breathe through tiny tubes on the side of their body called spiricles. Water has too much surface tension ordinarily to flood these spriricles but the addition of a small amount of soap allows it to flood them and drown the aphids. Just 2 or 3 drops of washing up liquid to a litre of water is sufficient. Rinse under running water and repot.
Watch out for soft yellowing leaves, this indicates the plant has too much water.
Dry crispy wilty leaves, not enough water.
I hope you’ve found this helpful and are now inspired to grow your own Auriculas, don’t forget to follow @popsplants2 on twitter & check out their website!
Here’s a few other things I’ve written about this subject if you’d like to know more…
Primula auricula, the beauty & obsession
A short history of auriculas and description of ‘Show’ auricula standards (part 2)
Auriculas part 3, Alpines, Doubles, Borders & Seeds