Primula auricula L. (Primulaceae)


Bear's ear

 Flowers of Primula auricula from Oxford Botanic Garden.  Variety of Primula x pubescens flowers illustrated in The Garden (1878, vol. 14).

Primula auricula, the mountain cowslip, is a characteristic, spring-flowering alpine of base-rich European mountains. Both the common name and the species epithet refer to the distinctive shape of the leaves. Under the traditional concept of Primula auricula, the species is distributed from the Alps, through the Apennines and Carpathians into the Balkans, and north into southern Germany and the Tatra mountains. However, detailed genetic analyses across the species' range have shown populations from the south and east are distinct from those in the north. The northern populations are Primula auricula in the strict sense, whilst the other populations are now called Primula lutea.

Bear's ears were first introduced to British gardeners in the sixteenth century. In 1648, Oxford Botanic Garden was growing a purple bear's ear and a purple-striped bear's ear. By 1658, the Garden boasted nine bear's ears which ranged in colour from tawny through yellow and scarlet to purple and violet.

Garden auriculas (Primula x pubescens) are the products of hybridisation between Primula auricula and Primula hirsuta, a Pyrenean and Alpine species, and generations of artificial selection by dedicated gardeners. In 1665, John Rea stated 'Bears Ears are nobler kinds of Cowslips, and now much esteemed, in respect of the many excellent varieties thereof of late years discovered, differing in the size, fashion, and colour of the green leaves, as well as flower'. In the herbarium of Jacob Bobart the Elder, the dried plant collection of the first Keeper of the Botanic Garden, there are about a dozen named varieties of auricula preserved. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries growing auriculas became an obsession with some, as Florists' Societies started to take an interest. Hundreds of varieties were developed, as the rich (or more likely their gardeners) and the working classes bred these plants and took advantage of two mutations that appeared; a clear green colour and a mealy central ring to the flower.

Some botanists admired how the Florists had transformed the wild ancestors of the auricula into garden flowers: 'in its wild state it … attracts no notice from its beauty, … Art accomplishes all the rest'. However, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus was rather less appreciative: 'these men cultivate a science peculiar to themselves, the mysteries of which are known only to the adepts; nor can such knowledge be worth the attention of the botanist; wherefore let no sound botanist ever enter into their societies'.

Further reading

Baker G and Ward P 1995. Auriculas. B.T.Batsford Ltd.

Duthie R 1988. Florists' flowers and societies. Shire Press.

Zhang L-B and Kadereit JW 2004. Classification of Primula sect. Auricula (Primulaceae) based on two molecular data sets (ITS, AFLPs), morphology and geographical distribution. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 146: 1-26.

Stephen Harris