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Auriculas Of Spitalfields

April 9, 2015
by the gentle author

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

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.

You may also like to take a look at

An Auricula for Thomas Fairchild

9 Responses leave one →
  1. April 9, 2015

    Lovely ♥

  2. Susan permalink
    April 9, 2015

    What a lovely and fascinating article! I never knew I could be so drawn in by auriculas. Some are so esoteric, like the Cornmeal or Seen A Ghost.

  3. Colette James permalink
    April 9, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author,

    your daily blogs this week have so interesting but I found the story of the auriculas compelling.
    I reside in Westen Australia and wonder if the auricula would survive our warmer climate?
    I am heading to the East End for a holiday in 2 weeks time and will look out for this little gem.

    Best wishes

  4. April 9, 2015

    Every single flower a beauty — have a lovely Springtime everybody!

    Love & Peace

  5. April 9, 2015

    Dazzling beauties and great photography. The theater is such a brilliant display idea, and what fascinating history these flowers have. Thank you for sharing all this.

  6. April 9, 2015

    What a coincidence receiving this post today as only yesterday I stood in a garden centre holding an Auricula deciding whether to buy it! I used to keep several of them some years ago but never seemed to have the right conditions for them to thrive beyond a few years. I decided not to purchase in the end so it was wonderful to see such lovely varieties in this post today. I would like a Thomas Fairchild one though when they become available!

  7. Pauline permalink
    April 10, 2015

    Dear GA, lovely article and a lovely collection of auriculas. Could Patricia Cleveland-Peck be persuaded to write a to the point ‘idiots’ guide for the care of these plants. I have my first five pots coming along nicely, but, where do I go from here? I was surprised GA when you said you had yours on an indoor windowsill. Oh, by the way, I am of huguenot descent – it must be in the genes!

  8. April 11, 2015

    Fascinating history of these glorious flowers – particularly like Piglet, Cornmeal, Seen a Ghost and Mrs Herne

  9. Ina ten Hove permalink
    April 15, 2015

    Pauline, Actually Patricia Cleveland-Peck did wrote a book about Auriculas! It called “Auriculas through the ages”. Lovely to read and also lovely illustrations from Elisabeth Dowle.
    For the cultivation of the Auriculas I would recommand Allan Guest book “The Auricula” a modern book and it describes the more newer variaties.

    I’m a collector from Holland they are in my genes too.

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