The arrival of florists cyclamen during October and November cheers the spirits throughout the dismal winter months. The flowers, in white, shades of pink from pale to maroon or red, often delicately scented atop neat patterned leaves delight. In five sizes from Magnum to Micro, these have been bred from Cyclamen persicum, a species found in the eastern Greek islands, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus. On a cool but light windowsill, they will flower over many weeks. The wild forms too, white or pale pink with a deep pink nose are worth growing and are easily kept in a frost free greenhouse. In general they are not particularly hardy but there are others which are perfectly happy in a garden location.
The twenty species of Cyclamen are primarily distributed around the Mediterranean, extending eastwards towards the Caspian Sea. There is also a single isolated species C. somalense found in a small patch of northern Somalia. Some species have a limited distribution, others such as C. hederifolium are found throughout Europe. The seasonal Mediterranean climate, with hot and dry summers and cool, wetter winters is very important, as most are dormant during summer, growth resuming as daylength reduces and temperatures cool. Nevertheless at least one species is found flowering in every month of the year, which is unusual given their Mediterranean distribution, but allows the gardener a succession of flowers. All are small, tuberous perennials.
Probably the most well-known and hardy species is Cyclamen hederifolium. The pink or white flowers appear at the end of summer, closely followed by the leaves which resemble those of the common ivy (Hedera helix), heart shaped with an angled margin of five short lobes. Having said that, there can be considerable variation in leaf size, shape and patterning; some leaves may be arrow shaped or spear shaped, with silver or pewter markings and gardeners have utilised this variation by propagating numerous cultivars. Plants also vary in flowering time, different clones may extend the season from August to October. C. hederifolium favours a woodland site, dappled shade and a leafy soil, although it can sometimes be found in a sunnier position. The seeds are dispersed by ants, so a colony can be quickly built up.
The other very popular hardy cyclamen is C. coum (subsp. coum), originating in northern Turkey and the Caucasus Mountains. This little plant is an essential for the winter garden, together with snowdrops and Crocus tommasinianus, its pink flowers announcing that spring is not so far away. Unlike hederifolium, which is long lived and can develop very large tubers, coum is a smaller and relatively short lived plant but will also seed around. The leaves appear in late autumn, rounded or kidney shaped, plain green or variously marked with silver or white, crimson beneath. Flowers deep pink or magenta, sometimes pale pink or white are produced between December and April. Again various cultivars are available, many with leaves washed with silver or pewter colours.
A number of other species deserve a place in the garden: Cyclamen cilicium is a hardy autumn flowering species with pale pink flowers and a deeper pink marking around the mouth. There is now a pure white flowered form available (C. cilicium f. album) which comes true from seed. Cyclamen intaminatum is closely related to C. cilicium but as one of the smaller species is probably best grown in a pot or trough. Flowers are white or very pale pink with delicate darker veining on the petals. In contrast Cyclamen repandum and its allies are the last species to appear and flower in the spring, waiting until winter is past. C. repandum subsp. repandum is a southern European species with a wide distribution from southern France, Corsica and Sardinia through Italy and Sicily to former Yugoslavia and will naturalise in some gardens making a fine show. Flowers are deep pink or magenta, leaves deep green with a hastate pattern. A sheltered site with dappled shade and a moist leafy soil are probably ideal. C. repandum subsp. peloponnesiacum, as the name implies, is confined to the Greek Peloponnese and subsp. rhodense is endemic to the island of Rhodes. Both of these are probably less hardy and more difficult to grow outside, although some growers have succeeded. The similar silver leaf-splashed Cyclamen creticum and C. balearicum are perhaps best in pots in the greenhouse unless very mild conditions can be provided.
Tubers of hederifolium, coum and some of the other more commonly grown species are available to purchase from nurseries and a good selection may be obtained from a cyclamen specialist. Cheaper and more rewarding is to grow cyclamen from seed, indeed this is often the only method available, unless you have the nerve and skill to divide a tuber into quarters or eighths! As outbreeders, the resulting seed can often vary slightly from the parents, giving rise to variable progeny, although this characteristic can throw up attractive new combinations and leaf patterns. Fruits usually ripen during July and August and seed is best sown during the autumn; germination should occur over the winter and into the following spring, depending on species. Fresh seed gives the best results but older seed of up to five years will still germinate provided that it is soaked in tepid water for 12- 24 hours to plump up prior to sowing. After germination a small root emerges, followed by a tiny tuber just below the seed and finally the leaf-like cotyledon. It is wise to sow the seed thinly and to keep the seedlings growing for as long as possible. Keep the pots cool, shaded and well watered and only pot on after 18 months or so when the plants are dormant. Depending on the species, some flowers may be achieved in their second year, but more likely in the third or fourth or even fifth year. Nevertheless, once a good flowering has been achieved, plants will continue to flower regularly for many years. Cyclamen seedlings can take some time to develop full leaf patterns or colourings so again a degree of patience is required. Cyclamen are extremely addictive and once one or two species have been tried, it is tempting to try to grow more and more. Not only the species, but there are the cultivars, the coloured leaf forms and variation in flower colour. Plenty of scope here!
An edited version of an article first published in the Correspondents Group Newsletter December 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 25
© Copyright for this article: Valerie Livesey
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.