The show must go on

Pops Plants Auric­u­las, near Sal­is­bury, Wilt­shire

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Clive Ni­chols

Auric­u­las be­came an ob­ses­sion for the own­ers of Pops Plants in Wilt­shire. Jacky Hobbs vis­its

Auric­u­las tend to in­spire pas­sion and ob­ses­sion in those who be­come cap­ti­vated by their neat spring flow­ers. Jacky Hobbs vis­its a nurs­ery whose pro­pri­etors caught the au­ric­ula bug three decades ago and now hold four na­tion­ally im­por­tant col­lec­tions

Abeau­ti­fully painted porce­lain tile de­pict­ing a pot­ted Prim­ula au­ric­ula sig­nals the where­abouts of Pops Plants Nurs­ery, on the edge of the New for­est in Wilt­shire, where Les­ley Roberts and Gil Daw­son cul­ti­vate and nur­ture four Na­tional Col­lec­tions of one of the orig­i­nal florist’s flow­ers. be­hind a thatched cot­tage, a mass of bright, shiny-faced flow­ers throngs un­der a pro­tec­tive canopy that shel­ters them from the sun and rain that would other­wise dam­age their per­fect fea­tures.

Les­ley and Gil have col­lected more than 1,300 of the best cul­ti­vars, in­clud­ing many rare and an­cient va­ri­eties, their four col­lec­tions now com-

pris­ing show, alpine, striped and dou­ble kinds. Les­ley be­came en­am­oured with auric­u­las 30 years ago, when she was smit­ten by an ex­hibit dis­played at the Chelsea Flower Show. She grad­u­ally be­came a breeder, grower, judge and then, for a term, pres­i­dent of the South­ern Au­ric­ula and Prim­ula So­ci­ety. ‘I fell for the di­vine and jolly lit­tle flow­ers, pro­moted and prop­a­gated by florists over cen­turies,’ she re­calls.

Named va­ri­eties were ini­tially dif­fi­cult to se­cure, but mem­ber­ship of the Na­tional Au­ric­ula and Prim­ula So­ci­ety broad­ened her hori­zons. In ad­di­tion, she and Gil scoured the coun­try, vis­it­ing breed­ers and nurs­eries, of­ten to se­cure just a sin­gle plant.

They be­gan to show and ex­hibit their own grow­ing col­lec­tion (up to 20 events in the mid April to May flow­er­ing sea­son), the ex­hi­bi­tion plants dis­played in the tra­di­tional way, in ter­ra­cotta long-tom pots, metic­u­lously ar­ranged in a tiered, wooden au­ric­ula theatre, painted black, to show off the bril­liance of the flow­ers.

With the ex­tent and de­mands of four Na­tional Col­lec­tions to be tended, these days, Les­ley and Gil are teth­ered to the nurs­ery at flow­er­ing time, where vis­i­tors can (by ap­point­ment) ap­pre­ci­ate the myr­iad en­gag­ing blooms, in­clud­ing some in­tro­duc­tions of their own. ‘A leg­endary breeder of striped auric­u­las, the late Allan Hawkes, sent us five seeds sel­l­otaped to a post­card and one be­came award-win­ning Cut­tle­fish,’ Les­ley beams.

New cul­ti­vars are sub­ject to rig­or­ous ex­am­i­na­tion at so­ci­ety shows, up­hold­ing the florists’ stan­dards, and only out­right win­ners are el­i­gi­ble for cul­ti­var nam­ing.

Auric­u­las are all spawned from Euro­pean alpine hy­brids, crosses be­tween the yel­low species Prim­ula au­ric­ula and pur­ple-and-white Prim­ula hir­sute. Their num­bers are tes­ta­ment to more than 400 years of breed­ing by en­thu­si­asts. Mi­grant Flem­ish weavers re­put­edly in­tro­duced the typ­i­cally pot­ted, hy­brid plants to Bri­tain in the late 16th cen­tury, where

‘I fell for the di­vine and jolly lit­tle flow­ers, prop­a­gated over cen­turies’

The colourful blooms stand out against the dark au­ric­ula ‘theatre’

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