Plants In Drag

Words by
Lucy Kaldor
| March 17, 2014

“Life imitates art”, wrote Oscar Wilde – gazing, possibly, at a specimen of Primula auricula. Known commonly by its species name auricula, this is a modest plant with a ridiculously painterly flower. Auriculas don’t just come in colours, they come in colourways: that hitherto superfluous fashion retail term has never had a better application.

The first time I saw an auricula I assumed it was fabricated, which really says a lot about the limits of my imagination and/or the arrogance of (wo)man.

In a sense, though, it was fabricated. Auriculas have been fervently cultivated for many centuries. Thousands of floral generations of breeding has coaxed out the outrageous, the unbelievable traits of colour and pattern that distinguish the cultivars today – and there are around 1,300. A single flower can combine shades of apple green, white and black; or dove grey and yellow; lilac and royal purple balayage or mossy Christmas stripes of green and red. But don’t take my word for it – find a comfortable chair, punch ‘auricula’ into Google and click ‘images’. It’s almost embarrassing.

Native to the European alps, auriculas were supposedly first cultivated by Flemish Huguenot weavers in the 17th century (some of my people). The plants later arrived in England, where breeding, collecting, sharing and showing auriculas began in earnest among so-called ‘florist societies’ (groups dedicated to cultivating, rather than selling flowers in the modern sense) in the late 18th century.

The growing (ha!) number of florist societies led to the invention of the auricula theatre, a timber cabinet serving the dual purpose of flaunting prize potted blooms at shows and protecting them from unwanted weather events. Evident masters of humour and irony, auricular enthusiasts often decorated these cabinets with whimsical trompe l’oeil curtains, creating the curious effect of a silent, vegetable choir on the scaffold within.

One of the largest known auricula theatres is also (allegedly) the only extant 19th century example, and can be found at Calke Abbey, a heritage-listed country house in Derbyshire, England. Dating from c.1850, this theatre accommodates more than 100 pots on its tiered shelves.

It makes a fitting stage for a plant whose flowers, personified, are debutantes, prima ballerinas, drag queens and nothing less.


The auricula theatre at Calke Abbey