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AURICULA PRIMROSES

When we think of primroses, the first thing that comes to mind are the ‘Pacific Giant’ hybrid primroses we see in garden centers.  Actually hundreds of species of Primula are in existence, and some species have been brought into gardens and significantly developed.  The auricula primroses, members of the species P. auricula, have been grown in gardens since the 1500s.  They have evergreen leaves that curl around in a way that resembles the ear of a bear.  When first cultivated, they were called ‘Bear’s Ears’.  Charles l’Ecluse (known as Clusius) is the first person known to have grown auriculas in a garden.  This was after 1573; he grew two kinds.  The first auriculas grown in England are illustrated first left above, in a woodcut from Gerard’s Great Herbal of 1596.  By 1639, at least 15 different colors and even striped forms were grown.  Auriculas were a popular plant beginning in the early eighteenth century when keen collectors began to grow and exhibit them in competitions.  These growers were called ‘florists’.  Several specialized classes of auriculas came into existence over the following centuries.  Potted plants were (and still are) exhibited in flower on black painted shelves in a stage-like display.  The black background highlights the beautiful colors of the flowers.  Auriculas do have an extremely wide color range, much greater than practically every other kind of flower.  The second picture shows a tawny-colored auricula, a color popular in the 1600s.  Auriculas were extremely popular in the nineteenth century, but curiously, are not well-known today.

Auriculas are native to the Alps and prefer gritty, moist, well-drained soil with a good amount of humus.  They are tolerant of alkalinity and extremely winter hardy to USDA climate zone 3, or even zone 2 if covered with snow all winter.  This means they are perfectly suited to growing all over Montana.  They are shade plants, especially when grown at lower altitudes.  The individual plants are small, only about 8 to 12 inches tall when blooming.  The engraving third from left depicts a garden auricula from 1908.  A gardener must watch that vigorous neighboring plants do not overtake them.  Being evergreen, they grow rather slowly.  I found that a mulch of sharp grit, about the diameter of turkey grit, is excellent for them and will discourage slugs.  Auriculas thrive when grown organically and enjoy soil amendments such as bone meal, composted manure, kelp meal, wood ashes, and grit for excellent drainage.

The classes of exhibition auriculas are usually grown in pots and are smaller and less vigorous than garden auriculas.  The pots used to grow them are taller than average, as the plants have a long tap root.  Growers commonly use an organic soil potting mix with added grit, bone meal and wood ashes.  Grit is especially important for drainage, but also for itsmineral content.  Indeed, the flowers have a wonderful mineral-floral fragrance unlike any other.  The last picture above shows a double exhibition auricula.

Auriculas are available from specialist growers as plants or seed.  I grow mine from seed planted in a fine, fast-draining seedling mix, covered with glass and placed in a shaded cold frame.  I plant seeds in late fall or winter, so the seeds have a cold period before they sprout in the spring.  The plants are usually large enough to pot on by midsummer.  Mature plants are best divided  midsummer.  I would urge gardeners to try auriculas; they are beautiful and rewarding to grow.  If grown in the garden, they might be best appreciated in raised beds, where their delicate flowers can be observed.

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Photographs of Historic Florist Pansies

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This week I thought I would show pictures of the Historic Florist pansies I grew from seed.  The top photo is of my pansy bed; the others show the diversity of blooms and colors of antique pansies.  The flowers are fragrant and almost all of the blooms have a “face”.  More information is available in my first blog on this WordPress site, which describes the origin of pansies in England during the 1830s.

This week I am moving to Montana from Oregon, so this blog is one day late and quite brief.  I will manage a new organic nursery and greenhouse—a new division of Westland Seed, Inc., Ronan, Montana.

Happy growing!

March Gardening Calendar

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This photo is of a double blue primrose seedling, blooming now in Corvallis, Oregon.

March is a very busy month for gardeners.  Root crops stored from the previous year and planned to produce seed can be planted out late in the month after the soil thaws (cabbages, celery, lettuce, leeks, onions, parsnips).  Planting time will arrive soon, or has already arrived for those of you in mild climates.  Weed and clean borders and vegetable beds, plant perennials, sow seeds of hardy annuals, plant rhubarb, asparagus, sea kale and artichokes.   Plant and/or prune cane fruits and fruit trees (cherries, apples, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, currants, gooseberries, etc.).  Check cold frames on a regular basis, venting as needed and closing the glazing panels at night.  Watch temperatures in the greenhouse also, as March is a month of ups and downs in temperature.  Manure and other organic soil amendments (epsom salts, seaweed meal, alfalfa meal, greensand, bone meal, compost and wood ashes) can be spread over vegetable, fruit, flower and rose beds.  Grape vines can be manured now, leaving space around the stem; treat roses in the same manner.

Many vegetables can be sown indoors now for transplanting out later: cole crops (brassicas), onions, lettuce, peppers, eggplant and leeks.  Some vegetables can be direct sown outside if weather permits and if your soil is not too wet to work: arugula, carrots, corn salad, fava beans, cress, mustard and turnip greens, onions, peas, radishes and spinach.  Celery and lettuce can be direct sown into frames.  Several vegetables and fruits can be transplanted now: raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, asparagus, horseradish, head lettuce, onion sets and plants and perennial herbs.  Make sure your mushroom beds do not get too wet; replace straw if wet.

Potted auricula primroses should be protected from rain and frosts; they will begin to bud soon.  Sow any remaining auricula and primrose seeds.  Herbaceous perennials can be divided and planted now.  Many hardy annual flowers may be sown during March: larkspur, sweet peas, lychnis, nigella, lavatera, poppies, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and sweet alyssum.  Inside the greenhouse sow: petunias, impatiens, pansies, alyssum, chrysanthemums, iceplants, portulacas, salvias, snapdragons, sweet Williams, ten-week stocks, mignonette, hesperis, Shasta daisies, hibiscus, lupine and Salvia x superba.

Roses and other shrubs may be layered now, and cuttings may be made of geraniums, myrtles and hydrangeas.  If you want to plant a hedge from seed, now is the time to sow seeds of hawthorns, stone fruits, roses and other hardy shrubs you might like to use.  The young plants can be transplanted out to their permanent positions later.

Happy Spring!

 

Some More Heirloom Early Spring Flowers

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I have several more wonderful heirloom flowers blooming here in Oregon in late February.  Tulipa schrenkii is shown in the first photograph.  It was introduced into Europe in 1608 from Turkey and is rare today.  The rather pointed petals are a warm red, margined with golden orange.  John Parkinson described and illustrated this tulip (though botanists have changed its name) in his great work A Garden of Pleasant Flowers, published in 1629.  He calls it “Tulipa pracox rubra oris luteia.  The early red tulipa with yellow edges, or the Duke.”  This species was an ancestor to the ‘Duc van Tol’ tulips, which were developed to be forced into bloom and sold, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Tulipa schrenkii is hardy in USDA zones 3-9.

Tulips are fairly easy to grow.  they prefer sandy or light soil, full sun, and a dry summer.  If you live in an area with rainfall in summer, you can dig them and store them in in netted bags or open boxes until October, then plant them again.  The bulbs will increase under such treatment.  I cover my bulbs with poultry netting to discourage cats from scratching the bed and squirrels from digging the bulbs.

The beautiful. fragrant Narcissus orientalis known in the nursery trade as ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ is illustrated I’m the second picture above.  This plant is illustrated in Parkinson as well, labeled ‘Narcissus Africanus aureus major.’  He compares it in size to the beautiful ‘Primrose Peerless’, and mentions that it is of “…exceeding sweet a sent”  (I have used the modern “s” instead of the antique “f” used in 1629).  Parkinson also mentions the “blackish brown coate or skinne” covering the bulbs.  This narcissus is forced in great quantities today and has a delicious scent.  Out of doors, it is hardy in USDA zones 8-10 and needs a dry summer as well, being native to northern Africa and Asia Minor.  I have grown this variety inside the house; in the low desert in California, and now here in Oregon (in the warmest, sunniest spot available).  It is beautiful and indispensable in my garden.

The third photograph depicts Vinca minor or periwinkle, just beginning to bloom here.  It has been grown since Roman times and Pliny refers to it as Pervinca.  Chaucer used the spelling “Pervinke”.  The plant is a vining groundcover with evergreen leaves and lovely blue flowers.  Periwinkle loves part shade and a moderate amount of water.  A white form exists, as  well as a double blue and a plum-colored single.  Vinca minor is hardy in USDA zones 4-10.

An important feature of these three plants is that they can be grown with moderate water, an important factor in the increasingly dry climate of the U.S.

Antique Florist Anemones

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The genus Anemone is a reasonably large one with 120+ species.  Here we will concentrate on three tuberous-rooted types that are native to the Mediterranean region: Anemone coronaria, A. pavonina, and A. hortensis.  These species cross readily.  Both wild and cultivated forms have large and beautiful flowers that last well when cut.  In the sixteenth century species and cultivated anemones were introduced to Western Europe through the development of trade with Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).  Turkish gardens at that time held many beautiful cultivated forms of anemones and these were valued almost as much as tulips.

The first picture above shows a page from Gerard’s The Herball of 1596At that time Anemone coronaria was called A. tenuifolia. (The modern A. tenuifolia is a species native to South Africa.)   Gerard had twelve forms of the species A. coronaria in addition to several other kinds of anemones.  The variation in the flowers of A. coronaria in its single to double forms can be seen in the woodcut.  The term anemone-flowered is derived from the shape of the flower on the lower right of the picture, which has longer outside petals with shorter petals in the center.

The second picture, also from Gerard’s The Herball, depicts Anemone latifolia, now called A. pavonina.  (I have not been able to find a picture of A. hortensis, which may be depicted in early herbals, but may have been listed under another name at that time.)  The botanical classification system devised by Carolus Linnaeus that we use today had not been created in 1596.  Since then botanists have renamed various plants over and over as they identify distinguishing characteristic of species.

The third picture is from The Garden of Pleasant Flowers, by John Parkinson, of 1629.  More garden forms of anemones were known by then and natural hybrids between the three species listed above increased the diversity of garden anemones.  Both Gerard and Parkinson grew named forms.  The popularity of these plants led to their development as florist plants, grown by specialist gardeners and displayed in pots at flower shows.  The word “florist’ has changed in usage; its meaning today refers to those who primarily sell cut flowers.  Anemones were at that time as well loved as tulips, polyanthus primroses and auricula primroses. The popularity of anemones peaked in the eighteenth century, when over 300 named varieties were known and sold.

Today, all of the old named anemones are gone.  Hybridization and selection in France in the 1800s created the ‘De Caen’ single-flowered type, descended primarily from A. pavonina.   ‘St. ‘Brigid’ double anemones were developed out of A. coronaria in Ireland in the 1880s.  Nowadays, these two strains represent the florist anemones in modern gardens.

The last two pictures above are examples of the modern strain of ‘St. Brigid’ anemones, from my own garden.  The tubers are hardy to USDA zone 7b when left in the ground over winter.  Gardeners in colder zones lift the bulbs and store them over winter, replanting them in spring.  The flowers and foliage do take some frost—the picture of foliage and buds above shows plants two weeks after heavy frosts down to 19 degrees F.  The plants need good drainage, sun, and not too much wet in summer.  In the Willamette valley we can grow them with little or no watering, yet they survive as perennial plants.  They do go dormant earlier in the season with this treatment.  Both ‘St. Brigid’ and ‘De Caen’ anemones bloom best (and all summer) with cool summer temperatures and regular watering.  The cut flowers are beautiful and colorful.  Several of the still life pastel paintings by Odilon Redon of France portray the exquisite beauty of these flowers.  Why not try growing some!