A flourishing family flower business

Annaick Guitteny

Plant collecting is notoriously addictive but, for Simon Lockyer, dainty, delicate auriculas have become both a muse and a profession. ‘It started as a hobby,’ he says. ‘My father always grew a few, but when I began to take an interest, things took off.’ By the time Simon was 11, he and his father Bill were exhibiting at the National Auricula & Primula Society and gaining trophies.

Winning the difficult ‘best six’ class (six auriculas in the same category, all judged faultless) soon marked them out as a top grower and, encouraged by Brenda Hyatt, doyenne of auriculas, they went on to exhibit at RHS shows. Things then started to snowball. ‘We put up more greenhouses in our garden in Surrey, borrowed a bit of next door’s garden and put up a polytunnel there, too,’ Simon remembers. ‘By then, it wasn’t really a hobby any more.’ And when a retiring nurseryman in Germany offered them his collection, numbering around 30,000 plants, they could not refuse.

‘I’d never been to Germany, and I don’t think Dad had even been out of the country, apart from a trip to the Isle of Wight,’ says Simon. ‘But we hired a large haulage truck and driver, went over and came back with all the plants.’

So W&S Lockyer nursery was born. Simon gave up his job as a landscape gardener and travelled the country doing shows, while Bill stayed at home, looking after the plants and building their National Collection of double auriculas until his death in 2016.

Simon is now a veteran RHS Chelsea Flower Show exhibitor. On the opening day, he dons a bowler hat to greet visitors, a reference to master auricula growers of yore, whose Florists’ Feasts saw them gather in public houses to exhibit, vye for trophies and drink the night away. Yet this was no pastime for the hoi polloi and ruffians. ‘In the nineteenth century, auriculas were popular, but they were expensive and only wealthy, professional people could afford to grow them. The hat is a nod to their history.’

Categorised as show, alpine, double and border types, Primula auricula is highly varied and surprisingly hardy. However, the leaves and flowers of many show types are covered in fragile farina, a floury coating that must be kept intact for exhibiting. Show auriculas include green- and grey-edged cultivars such as ‘Prague’ and ‘Warwick’; selfs – flowers of a single colour with a central ring of paste or farina; stripes and fancies; and alpines, which are gold- or light-centred. ‘In the wild, they can sit beneath the snow for several months,’ explains Simon. ‘It is only when in flower that wet is a problem – one raindrop on a petal and it is ruined for showing.’

Some are easier to grow than others, however, and Simon and his partner Louise Batchelor recommend border auriculas ‘as long as the site is not boggy’, and alpines such as gold-centred ‘Piers Telford’ and light-centred ‘Joyce’ for beginners. ‘People fall in love with grey and green auriculas, but it’s better to start with an alpine first,’ he says. For container growing, he uses alpine compost mix and guards against vine weevil and root aphid. Plants can be divided after flowering or in early autumn.

Auriculas prefer cool, free-draining conditions with winter sun and summer shade. ‘In their natural habitat, 2,000 feet up a European mountain, the soil is moist but very well drained and they don’t experience intense heat,’ says Simon. ‘If you want to kill anauricula, put it in the sun – they won’t tolerate scorching weather.’

Arrayed handsomely in tiered theatres, designed to showcase and protect the plants – they are both desirable and accessible to all, but have a cachet and sparkle of their own. ‘A friend calls them designer primroses and, in a way, he is right,’ says Simon. ‘They are in the same family, but an auricula is much gaudier than your average primula’.

W&S Lockyer: [email protected] A limited mail-order service is available. Simon will be exhibiting at RHS Cardiff, Malvern and Chelsea Flower Shows, and at Harrogate Spring Flower Show