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The Auriculas Of Spitalfields

March 27, 2020
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 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 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.

Patricia Cleveland-Peck’s book Auriculas Through the Ages, is available here

You may also like to take a look at

My Auriculas from Columbia Rd Market

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Kay permalink
    March 27, 2020

    Beautiful. I have just placed an order for a copy of the book.


  2. Judy Sumray permalink
    March 27, 2020

    I don’t know how you do it, but every morning brings a n ew delight, pleasure, interest, ‘cause’, words do fail me, no apologies for the cliche……and I actually had the pleasure and quiet stimulus…that sounds vaguely sinister, certainly clumsy, of meeting you twice. This sparked not the right word) off in me even more wanderings with this magic machine……now I’m going to be gross…….if there are any notes etc of our, don’t know the right word, sessions, that I cd possibly have???????

    I am 95 and three quarters and everything functioning….not ‘working’ exactly, except legs… well, dear gentle author, I really wish I could express what I’d like to…..lost for the right words… well and flourish…we need you….

  3. March 27, 2020

    What a gorgeous start to the day: I love Patricia’s observation that auriculas are more like pets than plants. I can’t aspire to a theatre but I hope to find one to love during this lonely time when I can’t see my mum or give her a hug.

  4. March 27, 2020

    Is this the same Patricia who wrote ‘You Cant Take an Elephant on the Bus? I love the idea of her tending to her auriculas as she writes.

  5. Prue permalink
    March 27, 2020

    Lovely. A little bit of cheer in grim times.

  6. Penny Gardner permalink
    March 27, 2020

    Wonderful .So healthy looking too. (Go on , show us the plastic pots too. I can just see the edge of one hidden by artistic clay pot of Summer Wine).

  7. March 27, 2020

    There’s a big group of enthusiasts in the moist/wet NW USA and Canada (WA, OR, BC).
    Google “American Primrose Society” for news and contacts.

  8. March 27, 2020

    Thanks — I needed that! Human beings are so strange……..leave it to US to look at something beautiful in nature and instantly compare it to ……… fake silk flowers or porcelain examples.
    But — I get it, I get it. We won’t be able to plant anything here in the Hudson River Valley until late May, so this was a total gift. Each flower, each color combination, each flower NAME, and then the collective array — what a lovely touch of eternal optimism. Right when we needed it.

    Thank you, GA, and Pat.
    Onward and upward.

  9. March 27, 2020

    Beautiful. The flower of Spring. In Spanish, the common name is “Primavera”, which also means Spring.

  10. March 27, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for your piece on auriculas in Spitalfields. Edward Church’s observation that “the weavers were almost the only botanists of their day in the metropolis” is probably the reason they were able to create such imaginative floral designs in their silk fabrics.

    Great photos too. My favorite variety was “Mrs Herne – gold-centred alpine auricular.”

    The story of the auriculas offers such a genuine touch of spring in this troubled world.

  11. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 27, 2020

    Beautiful plants and a gift to botanical artists. I have loved them since I saw the first one which was at my grandparents’ if my memory serves me correctly, and that would make sense as they had moved out from Upper Clapton where my great grandfather, Owen Charles Greenwood, had a florists’ shop and market garden. Thank you GA for a delightful start to another day spent at home.
    Keep safe and well.

  12. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 27, 2020

    I love the variety of bold colours and shapes of the flowers which are so well ‘designed’ that they look like they are made of very fine china.

    Also interesting to learn more about how and why they became such popular “Floristry Flowers” grown for competition. I first became aware of auriculas when reading one of my favourite novels These Lovers Flew Way by Howard Spring, in which one of the characters Uncle Arthur is the pompous but well meaning Town Clerk of a northern town and has two great passions in his life – his whippet Madelaine and his auriculas.

    “Why Arthur”, my mother asked. “What is wrong?”
    “Unremitting attention, loving attention, and attention informed by knowledge, is necessary throughout the twelve mortal months of the year”, Uncle Arthur said, “to produce a display which has been accepted without a word of comment.”
    His gaze rested upon the enormous wire contraption that stood on the table. The wire, white painted, was elegantly twisted to form containers for flower-pots. There were four tiers: five pots, four pots, three pots, and one crowning all. In each pot was an auricula in flower.
    “They look very nice, Arthur,” my mother conceded.
    Uncle Arthur laid down his spoon. “My dear Edie,”he said, “if a well-balanced life like mine, a life dominated by there cold particularities of municipal administration, may be said to have a dominating passion, that passion is The Auricula.”
    He lay a hand on Madelaine’s head. “Madelaine is aware that even she,” he said, holds a second place…

    And so on. I had no idea what auriculas were when I first read the book but having seen what they are like, I can understand why they can become a “passion”!

  13. Saba permalink
    March 27, 2020

    Just a dream column. Thank you Pat and GA. I am a botanical illustrator. These photographs are so good I may try to work from them. I also have done extensive research on the Huguenots, importing plants to England during colonial times, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century creation of “the English style” in landscape design. So, this article was hog heaven for me. Thank you also, Helen Breen, for the botanist-silk design connection, probably true and a great avenue of research. (I live in the New York’s Hudson Valley. Sometimes I wish to move to London!)

  14. March 28, 2020

    Thanks so much, Gentle Author, for brightening my day with these beautiful flowers and the story that goes with them. Such a comfort in the current circumstances.

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