Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Applause for Auriculas

I went to a theater opening at the New York Botanical Garden the other day. I saw English nobility, elegant flowers, a silent plant auction, a sale of antique garden furniture and a gallery of expensively-dressed people.

It’s true. I never saw so many silver-haired men in blazers or lacquered women with rail-thin legs. Most of them were getting gracefully about in high heels I couldn’t have taken a step in. No one seemed to mind the raw weather. Even in my raincoat, I got a chill.

I felt like Ugly Betty at a fashion shoot. And it didn’t help when my husband – in his haste to get at the smoked salmon – swept a glass of champagne off the hors d’oeuvre table in the auction tent with the sleeve of his raincoat. It was even worse when a blazer with an English accent kicked the pieces of glass under the table.

But the theater opening was fun. Actually, the theater itself was a wooden structure created by Christianson Lee Studios with swags of faux-painted Trompe l’oeil drapery that looked like velvet – even the gold balls and tassels seemed to glisten in the fading daylight.

It was an impressive setting for the stars of the show – Auricula primroses in terra cotta Long Tom pots arranged on three tiered shelves under a proscenium arch. They’ll be on display till May 13.

Auriculas aren’t the little yellow-eyed ground-hugging English primroses we all rush out to buy as a first sign of spring. These velvety beauties on pencil-thick stems came into being in the 16th century when the delicate yellow Primula auricula was crossed with red and blue-flowered Primula hirsute. The result was a kaleidoscope of stunning patterns and color combinations.

To protect the exquisite blooms from wind and rain, Auricula fanciers in France and Belgium started displaying the potted primroses on shelves in shallow, open-fronted boxes. Flemish weavers brought the plants to England in the 17th century – and the rest, as they say, is history. The English went crazy for the blooms and, by the 19th century, the curtain went up on the glory days of the Auricula Theater.

The Auricula Theater at The New York Botanical Garden is as English as you can get. It was designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury, who was in attendance to cut the yellow ribbon. Her credentials are, to say the least, impeccable. Lady Salisbury has blue blood and a green thumb. She’s known as a gardener’s gardener who restored 45 acres of the gardens at Hatfield, the family seat that dates back to the Jacobean era and was the childhood home of Elizabeth I. As you might expect, it includes an Auricula Theater.

Lady Salisbury, a slender, elegant woman with a polka-dotted navy blue dress, a flouncy white collar, a pearl necklace and an accent of pure Queen’s English – I’m not talking about the borough – held court in front of the auriculas. “Lovely,” she said. “Just as I imagined it.”

Before Lady Salisbury cut the ribbon, I sat on a bench next to the theater, which in the herb garden where the boxwood parterres were laid out by Penelope Hobhouse. A hawk circled high above the limousines arriving for the auction a short walk away. Amelanchier and blue stock were in bloom along with the willow leaf pear. And common primroses and blue-flowered Himalayan primroses were flowering.

“These are those very special primroses,” a tweedy passerby whispered to her husband. “Very nice. Very, very nice.” Then she spotted the white-gloved servers pouring champagne a few feet away. “I want a drink now. I’m freezing.”

A woman in a red swing coat and black Jimmy Choo’s was unsure of what she was looking at as she surveyed the auriculas. “Are they real?” she wondered out loud. After admiring the flowers, she turned to a companion. “Let’s get to the auction before we miss the good stuff,” she said.

The silent auction featured such plants as Chinese sweetshrub, fragrant snowbell and a new ruffled red daylily that came with naming rights. The antiques sale included botanical prints and rare books and stone fountains and marble statuary and moss-covered urns. I saw a lovely faux bois bench that I could have snapped up for just a little more than $11,000.

“Anything you want,” my husband said.

That’s when we hit the hors d’ouerve table.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where we can buy auriculas in the U.S.? I saw an article about them in a magazine, and they're said to grow well in the same conditions as hostas. Hostas are just about all that grows in my backyard, so I'd love to find auriculas to brighten the shade up.

5/25/2007 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Have just come upon this article. Pops Plants Auriculas, in Southern England, supply named auriculas to the US. Their website is

8/07/2008 4:10 AM  

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