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The Auriculas of Spitalfields

May 13, 2012
by the gentle author

An auricula theatre

In horticultural lore, auriculas have always been associated with Spitalfields and writer Patricia Cleveland-Peck has a mission to bring them back again. She believes that the Huguenots brought them here more than three centuries ago, perhaps snatching a twist of seeds as they fled their homeland and then cultivating them in the enclosed gardens of the merchants’ grand houses, and in the weavers’ yards and allotments, thus initiating a passionate culture of domestic horticulture among the working people of the East End which endures to this day.

You only have to cast your eyes upon the wonder of an auricula theatre filled with specimens in bloom – as I did in Patricia’s Sussex garden last week – to understand why these most artificial of flowers can hold you in thrall with the infinite variety of their colour and form. “They are much more like pets than plants,” Patricia admitted to me as we stood in her greenhouse surrounded by seedlings,“because you have to look after them daily, feed them twice a week in the growing season, remove offshoots and repot them once a year. Yet they’re not hard to grow and it’s very relaxing, the perfect antidote to writing, because when you are stuck for an idea you can always tend your auriculas.” Patricia taught herself old French and Latin to research the history of the auricula, but the summit of her investigation was when she reached the top of the Kitzbüheler Horn, high in the Austrian Alps where the ancestor plants of the cultivated varieties are to be found.

Auriculas were first recorded in England in the Elizabethan period as a passtime of the elite but it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that they became a widespread passion amongst horticulturalists of all classes. In 1795, John Thelwall, son of a Spitalfields silk mercer wrote, “I remember the time myself when a man who was a tolerable workman in the fields had generally beside the apartment in which he carried on his vocation, a small summer house and a narrow slip of a garden at the outskirts of the town where he spent his Monday either in flying his pigeons or raising his tulips.” Auriculas were included alongside tulips among those prized species known as the “Floristry Flowers,” plants renowned for their status, which were grown for competition by flower fanciers at “Florists’ Feasts,” the precursors of the modern flower show. These events were recorded as taking place in Spitalfields with prizes such as a copper kettle or a ladle and, after the day’s judging, the plants were all placed upon a long table where the contests sat to enjoy a meal together known as “a shilling ordinary.”

In the nineteenth century, Henry Mayhew wrote of the weavers of Spitalfields that “their love of flowers to this day is a strongly marked characteristic of the class.” and, in 1840, Edward Church who lived in Spital Sq recorded that “the weavers were almost the only botanists of their day in the metropolis.” It was this enthusiasm that maintained a regular flower market in Bethnal Green which eventually segued into the Columbia Rd Flower Market of our day.

Known variously in the past as ricklers, painted ladies and bears’ ears, auriculas come in different classes, show auriculas, alpines, doubles, stripes and borders – each class containing a vast diversity of variants. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, Patricia is interested in the political, religious, cultural and economic history of the auricula, but the best starting point to commence your relationship with this fascinating plant is to feast your eyes upon the dizzying collective spectacle of star performers gathered in an auricula theatre. As Sacheverell Sitwell once wrote, “The perfection of a stage auricula is that of the most exquisite Meissen porcelain or of the most lovely silk stuffs of Isfahan and yet it is a living growing thing.”

Mrs Cairns Old Blue – a border auricula

Glenelg – a show-fancy green-edged auricula

Piers Telford – a gold-centred alpine auricula

Taffetta – a show-self auricula

Seen a Ghost – a show-striped auricula

Sirius – gold-centred alpine auricula

Coventry St – a show-self auricula

M. L. King – show-self auricula

Mrs Herne – gold-centred alpine auricula

Dales Red – border auricula

Pink Gem – double auricula

Summer Wine – gold-centred alpine auricula

McWatt’s Blue – border auricula

Rajah – show-fancy auricula

Cornmeal – show-green-edged auricula

Fanny Meerbeek – show-fancy auricula

Piglet – double auricula

Basuto – gold-centred alpine auricula

Blue Velvet – border auricula

Patricia Cleveland-Peck in her greenhouse.

Next year, I hope to arrange to bring Patricia Cleveland-Peck’s auricula theatre to display in Spitalfields and invite you all to see it, but in the meantime I recommend her magnificent and authoritative work  Auriculas Through the Ages, available here

You may also like to take a look at

My Auriculas from Columbia Rd Market

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    May 13, 2012

    Thank you GA and thank you Patricia. Just wonderful.

  2. Jane permalink
    May 13, 2012

    An absolutely beautiful post. Each photo was a delight. Not only the flowers but the plant pots too, all perfect. Thank you so much.

  3. May 13, 2012

    Beautiful! I love them all except the doubles.

  4. May 13, 2012

    Lovely!

  5. May 13, 2012

    What charming little faces the auriculas have. My window garden is calling out for a specimen or two, although I worry they wouldn’t fare as well with me as they would with Patricia – there’s a lady who knows her stuff!

  6. Chris F permalink
    May 13, 2012

    With so much variety, how would you know if you had created a new variety? We have two large boxes filled with those french plant pots, I’ll try to persuade Mrs F to plant a few with auriculas.

  7. May 13, 2012

    So beautiful – thank you. It would be great if you could bring them to Spitalfields.

  8. May 13, 2012

    All sublime.

  9. Gary permalink
    May 13, 2012

    A beautiful arrangement, the result of many hours dedicated work.
    The collection is also interesting by the collection of clay pots, some of them original Waltham Abbey pots and original Sanky’s, once broken lost forever
    Gary

  10. May 13, 2012

    My favourite plants, my husband has just built a theatre for my small collection. Thank you for showing us these beauties.

  11. Scott permalink
    May 14, 2012

    Fantastic piece! And such great shots. Sitwell’s quote is very apt as you constantly see auriculas reproduced on 19th century porcelain.

  12. May 14, 2012

    Thanks for this post. To my knowledge, I’ve never seen auriculas in my life. They’re absolutely beautiful and I’m going to go about procuring some asap.

  13. May 22, 2012

    I posted “Auricula Theatre” on my blog an hour ago and was given this link to yours, amazing piece of serendipity. Love the shining colours and the freshness of your images. Janet

  14. Sonia Murray permalink
    October 18, 2012

    Lovely flowers, particularly the blues and doubles! I wonder how many people realize that all these varieties come from crossing and selection – genetic modification that has brought about the many different colours and forms. Thank you, gentle author – and, please thank Patricia Cleveland-Peck for providing the flowers and the beautiful old pots to make this article possible!

  15. January 31, 2013

    Nice to see my double ‘Piglet’ on your site, also you have many other good varieties.

  16. March 7, 2013

    A lovely story and beautiful photos, thanks to Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival for pointing us in your direction. We have got Patricia’s lovely book and our suite of songs are inspired by the same story http://auriculasuite.net/ We are always happy to link up :)

  17. Rob Argent permalink
    April 16, 2014

    Do you sell your Auricula to the public. Only we watched you on Gardeners World and notice you are in Ashurst Wood. We are in Crawley Down and would like to purchase different types that are not aveilable in garden centres

  18. Jeanie Dee permalink
    July 24, 2014

    Beautiful photos, I love those pots too. Nature working in harmony.

  19. Antony Berridge permalink
    January 1, 2016

    am keen to copy ly late father-in-law in the growing of auriculas, do you sell plants the Wenhaston firm dont give me the chance to order on line ?
    They sure are a rarity these days

  20. Laurien permalink
    January 16, 2016

    really interesting article

    here’s the best place to see and buy Auriculas

    http://popsplants.co.uk/index.php

  21. Kleshna permalink
    February 14, 2016

    Omg I have been in love with these flowers for as long as I can remember. I share you passion and have just done the downstairs loo in auricula wallpaper, tapestry and a painting!!!!

  22. March 26, 2017

    Thank you GA, I’m in quite a state after viewing all these sublime images.
    I feel like misunderstood stranger here in the high desert region of eastern Oregon. I have one auricula, and I have been propagating from it for 4 years now. I must get more…

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