Auriculas Of Spitalfields
The auriculas on my window sill have begun to sprout in the spring weather, inspiring me to publish this account of the history and lore of the auriculas of Spitalfields
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 – 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 evolved 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
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.
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