The show must go on
Pops Plants Auriculas, near Salisbury, Wiltshire
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’