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The Auriculas Of Spitalfields

March 6, 2022
by the gentle author

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to my crowdfund to launch a COMMUNITY TOURISM PROJECT in Spitalfields as a BETTER ALTERNATIVE to the serial killer tours that monetise misogyny. We have raised 80% of our target now and there are 8 days left, so please spread the word.




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.

You may also like to take a look at

My Auriculas from Columbia Rd Market

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    March 6, 2022

    A great collection.

  2. March 6, 2022

    The first flowers to bloom in the fields where I grew in the South of France. We call them “primevère” from “primus” (first) and “vera” (Spring). The tallest ones with yellow flowers are also called “coucous”. Of course those “primevères” are much more humble than Patricia Cleveland’s beautiful auriculas.

  3. March 6, 2022

    A beautiful story. And thanks to the Spring Greetings, which I hereby return!

    Love & Peace

  4. Barbara Barrington permalink
    March 6, 2022

    This is so joyful this morning. I have one pot of one of these beauties in my garden. Thank you.

  5. Helen permalink
    March 6, 2022

    Patricia’s smile is as lovely as her auriculas! That is a lady that is happy in her work!

  6. March 6, 2022

    The wonderful “Victorian Flower/Kitchen Garden” series has an episode focussing on the Victorian love of auriculas

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    March 6, 2022

    These little jewels have certainly brightened an overcast March day.
    That pagoda painted the matching terra-cotta colour–spectacular!

  8. Stephen Barker permalink
    March 7, 2022

    A wonderful post. I do like auriculas although attempts in the past at growing them were not very successful. I must try again.

  9. Heather Sell permalink
    March 7, 2022

    great story and exhibition

  10. Jane permalink
    March 27, 2022

    Lovely article, great photos. I never quite ‘got’ auricula fever before, but now I can understand. What great names too!
    Make gardens or greenhouses, not war.

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