16 MAY 1992, Page 38



Ursula Buchan

Last week I went to the theatre. I enjoyed it enormously, for it was a lively and colourful production, staged before an appreciative, even deferential, audience — of four. At the heart of the action was a mystery — not who dunnit but why an 'auricula theatre' should ever have been built, in 1857, in the grounds of so grand a house as Calke Abbey. For the growing and displaying of auriculas was then the pastime of artisans not aristocrats.

The many varieties of auricula (in every colour except pure blue) are descended from Primula auricula and Primula x pubescens, the scented Alpine relations of the cowslip. Their common name of 'Bears' Ears' derives from their smooth, oval, inward-curving leaves. The 'show' auricu- las, prized by enthusiasts, have been around since the mid-18th century, thanks mainly to extensive breeding and selecting of Primula auricula forms by the handloom silk weavers of Lancashire and Cheshire. (These were the descendants of the Protes- tant refugees who fled persecution by the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands in the 1570s, and who brought auriculas with them when they fled.) Their only recre- ation was the passionate, meticulous care and exhibiting of these flowers at local 'feasts'. These men would pay as much as two guineas for a fine new 'edged' cultivar, at a time when they might earn no more than 18 shillings a week. The family might go short but 'Grimes' Privateer', 'Pop- plewell's Conqueror' and 'Lancashire Hero' would flower each April in the yards of Middleton and Rochdale.

In the heyday of auricula-growing (the century after 1750), these flowers were often shown off in 'auricula theatres', which were usually three-sided roofed enclosures, open at the front, with shelves in tiers, on which ranks of pots could be stood. Tiny versions, which took just two pots, were made to be carried on the grow- er's back as he walked to shows held in public houses.

There is no record as to why such a the- atre was built into one corner of the walled garden at Calke Abbey. It is 20 feet long, eight feet deep and high, and contains eight tiers of wooden shelves. It originally had blinds, which could be dropped down in front of the pots in sunny weather — a sensible precaution as the theatre faces south-east rather than the more usual north or east.

Some 'theatres' had extravagant scenes painted on the three back walls, to give interest for the 46 weeks of the year when the auriculas were out of flower. This could be hidden by a black cloth at flowering time. At Calke, however, the background is a pleasing, unadorned ochre. This theatre may well have been used for other plants, such as carnations and pelargoniums, to prolong the display, and it is hoped it will do so again.

The display in late April and early May is wide-ranging, including border and alpine auriculas as well as the more challenging 'show' or 'stage' auriculas: 'green-edge', 'grey-edge', 'white-edge', 'fancy' and 'self. The sturdy six-inch stems support heavy heads of flower, which sway in unison in the breeze like gaily-painted chorus girls.

Like actresses, auriculas are a mixture of hypersensitivity and old-boot toughness, from whom the best performance can only be coaxed by cosseting and flattery. Although hardy (as you would expect with a species which originates from the Alps) and quite capable of thriving in the flower border, they spend much of their lives under glass in clay pots, so that no drop of rain may spoil the mealy 'farina' of the silver-green leaves or the sanctity of the 'circle of paste' in the centre of the flowers. Although no longer treated to a rich diet of goose dung steeped in bullock's blood with sugar, baker's scum, nightsoil, sand and yel- low loam, they are nevertheless still grown in a particular and special compost mix- ture.

It is a pity that the fashion for auricula 'blooming stages' is long gone for it seems to me appropriate to display these wonder- ful plants in theatres with staging and back- drops — not just because they are shown so clearly in all their extraordinary beauty, variety and detail, but because theirs is a story full of artifice and high romance.