Think of cyclamen and the chances are that Mothers Day immediately comes to mind, which is something of a pity. Now don’t misinterpret me, there’s nothing wrong with mothers or with having a day for them, but it does seem a little unfortunate when such beautiful, adaptable and useful plants become so commercialised that there’s difficulty escaping that association.
But no plant as beautiful as the wild cyclamen can remain so neatly packaged and presented as its cultivated forms may have it. Gardeners are always willing to experiment, to use outdoors what might be considered house plants and to seek out less widely grown but hardier species for their gardens.
Once thought to consist of many species, the genus Cyclamen is now considered to include just 19 species, some of which encompass subspecies and forms previously considered distinct. Related to the primroses, they form a few large tubers or numerous small ones, soon spreading to cover a considerable area, if happy. They occur naturally in southern Europe, neighbouring western Asia and the moister parts of North Africa with one species from Somalia, and as with many of the western Asian bulbs, corms and tubers, some species are now rare in the wild because they have been over-collected by commercial bulb gatherers and enthusiasts.
Cyclamen are generally most at home in fairly dry, partly shaded, well-drained conditions such as might be found in a rockery. Although hardiness varies with the species, if planted in well-chosen sites, all can be grown in coastal New Zealand gardens and many can be cultivated inland too. While the exact flowering time varies with the species, none bloom to any great extent in summer, the cooler months from March to October being the main season.
The best-known cyclamen is Cyclamen persicum, which is so widely cultivated as an indoor or gift plant that it usually known as the florist’s cyclamen. This species, or rather the countless cultivars or probably hybrids derived from it, is a native of the eastern Mediterranean, Libya and the islands of Rhodes and Crete. The true species, sometimes seen but often hard to differentiate from the cultivated forms, has dark green leaves heavily marbled with silver-grey and its fragrant flowers, which have reflexed petals up to 3 cm long, may be white, mauve or any shade of pink from pale to cerise. This natural variability and the ease with which it adapts to pot culture has made the plant what it is today - a universal favourite.
Cyclamen persicum is so well known that it’s fashionable to dismiss it as being too common and to look instead for less widely grown species. However, anything that is popular becomes so for a reason and you don’t have to search for the secrets to the success of the florist’s cyclamen. It has lush foliage, masses of beautiful flowers in a huge range of colours and styles, it blooms from autumn to spring and can be grown indoors or outdoors in mild climates. What else could you possibly want?
Well, perhaps you might want greater frost hardiness, more flowers with less foliage, greater sun tolerance and the kind of diminutive stature that makes the finest rockery and alpine plants so appealing. And that’s where the three species that come next in the list of the most widely grown cyclamen really shine, features not lost on the gardeners to which we often look for guidance, the British.
Cyclamen have always been popular in Britain but Cyclamen persicum rarely succeeds outdoors in the British climate. Consequently other species have been sought out and developed as garden plants. The first of these was the local Cyclamen purpurascens, from central and eastern Europe, which in its common form was formerly known as Cyclamen europaeum. This small species has marbled, rounded to ivy-like leaves and deep pink flowers that open from late summer. While still popular in British and European gardens, Cyclamen purpurascens is not commonly met with here, though its style of growth paved the way into cultivation for three species that are: Cyclamen coum, Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen repandum.
Undoubtedly my favourite, this tough little plant is found from Bulgaria and the Caucasus to the northern parts of Syria and Iran and may extend southwards into Israel. It dark leaves are small, usually 25 to 50mm wide, and are heavily marbled, with reddish undersides. The flowers are tiny too and may be white, pale pink or tending towards magenta. They open from early winter and continue unabated into spring. The flowers are remarkably resistant to frost and although they can look very downhearted when frozen, they immediately perk-up on thawing out. This is a terrific plant for rockeries or alpine troughs and is at home in sun or partial shade.
Formerly known as Cyclamen neapolitanum and still widely sold under that name, the attractively marbled, ivy-like foliage of this native of southern Europe and Turkey dies away in spring and does not reappear until well after the plant has started to flower in late summer. The small flowers occur in a wide range of shades and when spent, their stems start to coil like springs and turn downwards to the ground as the seed capsules develop.
This species is found from southern France to Greece and has large, lobed leaves that are dark green with conspicuous silver-grey mottling and marbling. Considering its lush foliage, spring blooming habit and Mediterranean homeland, it is surprisingly frost hardy. Its flowers are pleasantly scented, have petals up to 20mm long and occur in white and all shades of pink to light red.
These three species are so common that if you see a garden cyclamen that is obviously not Cyclamen persicum then the chances are that it’s Cyclamen coum, Cyclamen hederifolium, Cyclamen repandum or one of the subspecies or forms of those species. However, collectors and enthusiasts, being what they are, have imported other species that you may occasionally have the pleasure of seeing.
With so few species in the genus I’m reluctant to say that any of them aren’t cultivated. Indeed, it’s very likely that they’re all in gardens – somewhere – in one form or another. But while I’ve learnt to never say never when it comes to stating what’s to be found in our gardens, I’m yet to see the Somalian species, Cyclamen somalense.
Another exclusively African species, Cyclamen africanum, from Algeria is also very rare. It has rather glossy, toothed edged leaves up to 10 cm wide and its 25mm flowers, which are deep pink and open in autumn, have the scent of violets. It is somewhat similar to Cyclamen hederifolium and along with the white- to deep pink-flowered Cyclamen ciliatum from Turkey is usually the first cyclamen to start blooming in late summer or early autumn.
Also from Africa, the Libyan Cyclamen rohlfsianum has silvery marbled bright green leaves with a covering of fine pinkish hairs when young. Its bright pink flowers open in autumn and are often scented. It dislikes winter wet and is best grown in pots with the addition of some limestone chips.
The eastern Mediterranean species: Cyclamen creticum, from Crete; Cyclamen cyprium, from Cyprus; Cyclamen graecum, from Greece, the Aegean islands and southern Turkey; and Cyclamen libanoticum, from Syria and Lebanon, are all to be seen locally, though none are common. However, because these species are becoming increasingly rare in the wild and live in areas that are threatened by that most pernicious of predators, the tourist, we should be doing our bit to ensure their survival by making them more widely available.
They are, in the main, dainty plants with small leaves and pink flowers. Cyclamen graecum has some of the most beautiful foliage in the genus. In addition to the usual silver-grey mottling, its leaves have pale to vivid green veins, maroon undersides and reddish teeth.
As mentioned earlier, cyclamen generally prefer partial shade, very well drained, somewhat dry soil and cool conditions. They thrive in lightly shaded rockeries, growing happily in the crevices between rocks and also adapt well to container cultivation, especially in alpine troughs. Most species have a preference for neutral to slightly alkaline conditions. Adding a few limestone chips to the soil aids the drainage and keeps the pH about right.
That said, tough species like Cyclamen hederifolium usually adapt well to being cultivated with acid soil plants such as ericas and dwarf rhododendrons, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
While a few species, such as Cyclamen libanoticum, prefer their tubers to be below the surface, in most cases the top of the tuber should be at or above the soil surface. This helps keep the tubers dry in winter and ensures that the crown of flower and foliage stems does not rot off at ground level. The tubers of indoor potted cyclamen should be kept dry - water the soil surface, not the tuber - and even then only when it has dried.
Cyclamen are not heavy feeders. Regular feeding with mild liquid fertilisers will keep house-grown cyclamen flowering well, while a light application of general garden fertiliser during the summer dormant season is enough to ensure that outdoor plants continue to thrive.
Pests and diseases are rare on healthy plants and when present are usually a sign of poor growing conditions. While slugs and snails can attack outdoor cyclamen, they should otherwise be pest-free. If indoor cyclamen show signs of botrytis, mildew of other soft rots, the soil conditions are probably too damp. If mealy bugs and scale insects occur they may indicate low humidity or may have spread from other plants that have been infested.
Most cyclamen are bought in nurseries as ready-grown container plants intended, in the case of Cyclamen persicum, for growing indoors, or otherwise for planting out. As they grow and their tubers multiply, they can be lifted and dived when dormant.
This slow and steady method of propagation ensures a continuity of growth, but if you need to speed up your cyclamen reproduction consider propagating the plants from seed. While some of the fancy-foliaged forms must be propagated vegetatively to maintain their characteristics, most cyclamen cultivars reproduce reasonably true to type from seed and the species certainly do.
Growing from seed is quite straightforward, though you may have to wait quite some time before the first flowers appear, typically 18 months to two years. Sow the seed when ripe, usually late spring to early summer, in a fairly light, gritty soil. The temperature should be cool, around 18°C, and the seed should be lightly covered with soil. If viable, most of the seed should have germinated within 28 to 42 days. The seedlings may be pricked out into individual pots as soon as they are large enough to easily handle without damaging their fleshy stems.
I am a garden book author and horticultural photographer based in Christchurch, New Zealand. I run a stock photo library called Country, Farm and Garden (http://www.cfgphoto.com). This article may be re-published provided this information is published with it and is clearly visible.