For all their addictive charms, cyclamen don’t just happen - you have to want ‘em.
To most non-gardeners, cyclamen are those pretty potted winter holiday plants with colorful flowers and heart-shaped leaves with cool variegated patterns. And that’s good enough.
But to gardeners they are cherished cool weather bulbs with colorful flowers - their swept-back petals being just icing on the cake. And their interesting foliage is also a sought-after quality.
Before some of you jump on my case about this, I know that cyclamens aren’t true bulbs - they are tubers that sometimes get six inches across. Most are native to the Mediterranean and other areas where summers are warm and dry and winters are cool and wet, so they, like daffodils, typically go dormant in the summer and sprout new leaves in the fall that remain through the winter.
Collectors often choose new cyclamen plants based as much or more on their foliage than the flowers. Leaves, which are heart-shaped, roundish, or ivy-like with several points, are usually dark green with lighter green, white or silvery patterns, often in arrowhead shapes. Some have a purplish underside as well.
Depending on the species, they can bloom in late winter, spring or fall. Balanced on thin stems, the nodding flowers, with their upswept petals look like they are inside-out. Flower color range from white or pink to red or violet, with some cultivars being bi-color, often with darker color on the nose.
For those of you who appreciate cool details, once a cyclamen flower fades, its stem coils tightly, pulling the seedpods back to the plant.
While cyclamen can be grown from seed - hardy outdoor kinds often self-seed to become naturalized - they take a couple of years to reach flowering maturity. Better to look for already-blooming plants at a florist or plant sale, when you can choose the color and leaf pattern you like best.
Poor Man’s Orchid
The popular Persian cyclamen (C. persicum), sometimes called Persian violet or poor man’s orchid, was a hot winter plant in Victorian days. Its large, brightly colored flowers can last for weeks if kept cool and out of direct sunlight. It is best grown outdoors in frost-free areas. though they can tolerate very brief frosts.
The most important things to know about growing florist cyclamen are that they need bright, indirect light, fresh air and humidity, and moisture without keeping the tuber so wet it rots. Half strength fertilizer is best, or you will get mostly leaves with few flowers. And they absolutely need cool temperatures; if your home stays much above 70 degrees or so, expect the plants - which will think it’s summertime in the Mediterranean - to go dormant.
Most folks simply toss out spent cyclamen plants like they do faded poinsettias, but you can get them to re-bloom indoors if given a dormant period. After blooming, taper off watering until the leaves turn yellow and can be pulled off. Keep the plant in a cool, dimly lit area, with little or no water. After three or four months, when you notice new leaves starting to emerge, start watering more regularly and apply a half-strength plant food and move them back into indirect light.
And remember, they do best in cool temperatures - what we would consider downright chilly.
Hardy Garden Cyclamen
Some species of cyclamen are well suited for being naturalized in woodland gardens, especially in areas that are not irrigated in the summer, which can rot their dormant tubers. They are perfect accents in rock or alpine gardens. Container-grown collections have the advantage of being mobile so more tender species can be moved to a protected place in winter.
Perhaps the hardiest cyclamen is the ivy-leaf cyclamen (C. hederifolium), which may tolerate temperatures down to -20 °F. It flowers in autumn before cold-hardy leaves appear. It also makes a good houseplant if given a cool location with bright, indirect light and allowed to go dormant in the summer.
Eastern or round-leaf cyclamen (C. coum) is also hardy to below 0 °F, and often flowers before even snowdrops; the leaves of eastern cyclamen are round-tipped, and can be green, silvery or marbled with darker green. When naturalized under trees is can make a nearly solid white or pink flower carpet. It is one of the best for the hot, humid Southeast as long as it is planted under trees that aren’t watered during the summer dormant period.
There are many other species and countless cultivars, so don’t think you are done when your holiday gift plant bites the dust. Start researching the myriad leaf forms and flower colors and see if you aren’t bitten by the Poor Man’s Orchid bug.