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An Auricula For Thomas Fairchild

October 5, 2014
by Patricia Cleveland-Peck

Spitalfields Life Horticultural Correspondent Patricia Cleveland-Peck investigates the link between a modern flower variety and the celebrated Hoxton Gardener who died two hundred and eighty-five years ago next week, on 10th October

Thomas Fairchild (1667–1729)

The Hoxton Nurseryman and Gardener,  Thomas Fairchild, is best remembered as the originator of hybridisation.  Previously, it had occurred in the wild  but Fairchild was responsible for the first man-made hybrid by crossing a Carnation and a Sweet William. Subsequently known as the Fairchild Mule, nevertheless it led to the development of the many hundreds of thousands of  flowers and plants which adorn our gardens today.

In Fairchild’s time,  the act of ‘tampering’ with Nature raised a controversy comparable to that over Genetic Modification in our own age. It was suggested that, by this undertaking, Man was usurping the role of God The Creator and Fairchild attempted to appease his guilt  by leaving the sum of twenty-five pounds for an annual sermon upon ‘the wonderful works of God in the creation’ to be preached at his Parish Church of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch – known as the Vegetable Sermon.

Recently, Derek Parsons, one of the great Auricula hybridisers has created a Show Auricula by the name of Thomas Fairchild as a counterpoint to Fairchild’s Mule by which he is currently remembered. The Auricula is an appropriate species, since these plants have long been associated with East London. It commonly believed they were brought by Huguenots who kept them in pots in their weaving lofts. It is not unlikely that Auriculas would have been cultivated in Fairchild’s Hoxton nursery

It was Derek Parsons who, together with plant breeder Allan Hawkes, was responsible for recreating the Striped Auricula, a type which was beloved of early Florists (meaning collectors and breeders, rather than flowersellers) but which had disappeared over the centuries. It was a painstaking task, undertaken by looking for signs of striping in any Auricula, whatever the quality of hybrid, and breeding them together and then, as more stripes appeared, selecting the best and breeding from those.

In his monograph for the National Auricula & Primula Society Derek describes in detail the procedure by which the pollen-bearing and the seed-bearing parent plants were brought together in clean surroundings, the seed ripened, and the pods cut off and put into small envelopes to finish ripening before being harvested. The resulting seed is sown the following January. This part is not especially difficult but the skill lies in the understanding of genetics and in the critical selection process that comes later, as the plants develop, and whch can result in thousands of rejected plants.

For Derek, a true modern Florist, the best are those specimens which will do well on the show bench and hybridisation for this purpose is a very narrow field with specific highly defined targets, of which there are two types – that of perfecting existing Auriculas and that of creating new ones.

To create the new Thomas Fairchild Auricula,Derek used as parents the romantically-named Amore and Romeo’s Bird. Auriculas are divided into several types (Edges, Selfs, Fancies, Stripes, Alpines, Doubles and Borders) and, with the exception of Borders which are not judged so vigorously, for show purposes each type has a particular standard of perfection towards which the breeder aspires.  Both Thomas Fairchild and its parents fall into the Fancy category. A plant pivotal to many in this category is an Auricula by the name of Fleecy which is a grandparent on both sides of the Thomas Fairchild lineage.

We shall have to be patient because the Thomas Fairchild Auricula is unlikely to be available commercially for several years. Yet it is a wonderful remembrance of the Hoxton Gardener who was the first to propagate through hybridisation and is one of Derek Parson’s great heroes, explaining the choice of name for this new variety.

The technique of plant breeding has developed a long way since Thomas Fairchild created his simple Mule but it was he who invented the notion of hand-pollinating plants for which he has received very little recognition for many years. So I have no doubt he would be overjoyed to see his name carried forward into the twenty-first century by such a delightful flower.

Fleecy, grandparent of Thomas Fairchild

Romeo’s Bird, parent of Thomas Fairchild

Amore, parent of Thomas Fairchild

Thomas Fairchild

Thomas Fairchild’s tombstone in St Leonard’s Graveyard in the Hackney Rd

Patricia Cleveland-Peck is the co-author of the definitive book on Auriculas, entitled Auriculas Through the Ages: Bear’s Ears, Ricklers &  Painted Lades with paintings by botanical artist Elisabeth Dowle, from which I publish a selection below.


C W Needham

Walton Heath



Hinton Fields

Green Shank


Maureen Milward




Fanny Meerbeck


Dusky Maiden

Wye Hen





Paintings copyright © Elisabeth Dowle

You make like to visit the artist’s website

You may also wish to read about

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

A Brief Survey of East End Garden History

6 Responses leave one →
  1. October 5, 2014

    Finest Horticultural Art!

    Love & Peace

  2. Annie permalink
    October 5, 2014

    I do love an auricula – so neat and cheerful! And I would very much like to have known this merry gardener with his stolid practicality and humour.

  3. October 5, 2014

    What a wonderful article! An appropriate tribute to Fairchild; and the illustrations are that rare combination: botanically accurate and stunningly beautiful. We recently reissued Sir Rowland Biffen’s classic 1951 work on auriculas (, but sadly – and inevitably, given the date – the illustrations are only in black-and-white.

  4. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 5, 2014

    These botanical illustrations are lovely, and the way the velvety appearance of the petals has been captured is great. I was taught botanical plant drawing by the late great Richard Chopping who did the wonderful dust jackets for Ian Fleming’s books so I consider myself to have been very fortunate, he taught me all the tricks of the trade! This lady seems to know most of them too!!

  5. October 6, 2014

    Fantastic, Amy!~


  6. Stephen Barker permalink
    October 7, 2014

    Beautiful illustrations of jewel like flowers.

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