Auriculas often are considered the temperamental divas of the primrose world, since they are picky about the conditions under which they will perform. But, like most divas, they are gorgeous, glittery, and gussied up enough to get away with their demands!
Being fond of primroses in any form, I often have started auriculas (Primula auricula) from seed along with other types. (The seeds usually germinate best if pressed into the surface of seed starting mix and kept at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a bright but not sunny location.) Almost invariably, the other seedlings will do fine while the auriculas will disappear after their first winter here in Pennsylvania.
Due to my recent research, I’ve discovered that isn’t due to cold temperatures. Since auriculas originated on mountains, nippy conditions don’t faze them, and they are hardy from USDA zones 3 through 9. But they are accustomed to very good drainage and neutral to slightly alkaline soil.
So, oddly enough, what the pretty little plants probably need is grit—and lots of it—to grow in our predominantly clay ground. (Grit either can be coarse sand or finely ground gravel and should make up about a third of the soil in which these primroses are planted.)
Fortunately, the plants adapt well to culture in fast-draining terracotta pots too, as can be attested by centuries of British weavers—especially those with Flemish ancestry. Growing, breeding, and showing auriculas was a passion with them from about the 16th century through the 19th.
Since weavers often worked from home in those days, they could take a break and potter among the posies whenever the mood struck them. Their hobby would be picked up by miners as well. Growing delicate plants which seldom surpass 8 inches in height can seem like an odd avocation for blue-collar men. But we can guess that it was the challenge and the competition that motivated them as much as the wide-eyed blooms. (Those blooms are, of course, not nearly as large as they are pictured here.)
Because auriculas grow in small spaces between rocks in their mountain habitat, they usually were kept tightly potted in what are called “long toms” in England. Those are tall and skinny terracotta pots, which reportedly should be no more than 3 1/2 inches across at the top. I suspect most of us “Yanks” are going to have to make do with shorter 4-inch ones instead.
The extra height of the long toms came in handy, though, since auriculas have a tendency to become leggy due to losing lower leaves. They require repotting, usually in late summer, both to remove offsets and to position their main root further down in the soil. That soil should be fast draining, perhaps equal parts of potting mix, compost, and perlite or grit. (I may try using cactus potting mix instead.)
Though auriculas did lose popularity briefly after the industrial revolution, they’ve been making a comeback. Most of the ones available these days actually derive from crosses between Primula auricula and Primula hirsuta, with the resulting hybrids sometimes called Primula x pubescens. “Alpine,”“border,” or “double” types are considered the best for garden beds. Many of the “selfs,” “fancies,” “edges,” and “stripes” are heavily sprinkled with natural white or gold farina (mealy powder)—on the blooms and sometimes on the foliage—which can be damaged by rainfall.
So the potted plants are often kept while in their spring blooming stage, which occurs in Britain from mid-March to mid-May, in garden “bookcases” known as "auricula theaters." The shelves keep the rain and sun off of their heads, thus protecting their powdered faces while displaying them to best advantage.
The flowers come in both pin-eyed and thrum-eyed forms. In pin-eyed types, the stigma is most prominent at the center of each bloom. In thrum-eyed auriculas, the anthers are most prominent. So, in the photo above, the cream-colored flower would be pin-eyed and the burgundy one on its left thrum-eyed.
After auriculas are finished blooming, they should be stashed in a cool place—possibly a shaded cold frame with the lid propped open during warmer weather. There, they should be kept barely moist over the summer, autumn, and winter. In early spring of the following year, they can be revived from their semi-dormancy with increased watering and high-potash plant food, potash being the last of the three numbers listed on fertilizers. (Hint: Tomato plant foods frequently are high in potash.)
When summer arrives, you can pinch off the faded blooms, as these plants will have ceased flowering and will be ready for their long nap again. After all, a diva can't be expected to perform without her beauty rest!
Photos: The banner image of Primula auricula 'Sirius' is by kniphofia, the image of Primula auricula 'Beppi' by Terri1948, and the images of 'Purple Rain' and Primula x pubescens 'Gigantea' by AnniesAnnuals, all from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles.