I have a new quilt in issue 36 of Today's Quilter this month, it's called Auriculas and was inspired by the Regency Auricula Theatre at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. Auriculas have enchanted gardeners for hundreds of years: their distinctive form and exquisitely dainty flowers with brilliantly-coloured, velvety petals are instantly recognisable, so I thought I'd share a little more about the history of these curious little flowers.
Photo courtesy of Today’s Quilter
Auriculas grow naturally in the Alps but have been cultivated since the 15th Century. They arrived in England a century later and are recorded in Gerard’s 1597 ‘Herball’. Their round, downy leaves inspired their common name of ‘Bear’s Ears’.
John Robert Thornton 1812
From three wild species Auriculas were intensively cross-bred during the 16th & 17th Centuries, resulting in dozens of cultivars in an array of colours. Their devotees - known as Florists - rivalled the Tulip breeders in their ingenuity. It is thought that many were brought to England by refugee Flemish weavers and by the end of the 17th Century enthusiasts were coveting new striped and double Auriculas. Gentlemen botanists and weavers alike eagerly collected them.
The 18th Century saw the establishment of the Auricula ‘show’ - still popular in the North East of England - where the Florists competed to produce an unblemished and unique bloom. And keeping them unblemished meant protecting them from rain, which washes away the distinctive fine dusting of wax that gives the flowers their velvety appearance. They were - and still are - sheltered by anything from a modest range of shelves on a garden wall, often painted black to highlight their jewelled colours, to a grand Auricula theatre, like the one at Calke Abbey.
Photo courtesy of the Calke Abbey blog
Many great houses had Auricula Theatres in the 18th Century to show off fashionable collections but, as horticultural tastes changed and intrepid plant collectors arrived home with the latest object of desire, many were literally swept away in the mania for parkland. Calke’s has survived more by accident than by design and is now in the care of the National Trust.
The W & S Locker Auricula stand at Chelsea Flower Show
Auriculas remain as popular today - Lockyer’s stand at the Chelsea Flower Show is always thronged with visitors - and apart from their aversion to rain they are reasonably easy to grow. Their diminutive size makes them perfect for pots, but if you don’t have green fingers - or an Auricula Theatre for that matter - how about paying homage with a quilt? I’ll be showing you how easy it is to make on the Sewing Quarter on Saturday, the 2nd of June.
You too can be a Florist...
PS: If you want to read more I can highly recommend 'Auriculas Through the Ages: Bear's Ears, Ricklers and Painted Laidies' by Patricia Cleveland-Peck (with lovely illustrations by Elisabeth Dowle).