By Barry Glick
Most gardeners in the U.S. are quite familiar with the florists Cyclamen which are hybrids of C. persicum. These are popular Easter plants and even though they are quite perennial, nobody seems to want to take the time and effort to keep them alive once they have finished blooming. This is a pity, as there are really some gorgeous cultivars in commerce today, and you don't have to be a botanist to follow a few simple steps necessary to succeed at growing them as permanent houseplants. First of all change the soil from the peaty florists mix to a gritty mix with better drainage. Then all you have to do is keep them relatively dry after they go dormant. When you see new growth in the Autumn, start watering again and fertilize with a houseplant fertilizer about every 6-8 weeks.
But thats not what this story is about. This story is about the Cyclamen species that the average home gardener can grow outside in their garden year round.
The genus name Cyclamen is derived from the Greek word kyklamenos which means "circle form." I'm not sure whether this refers to the circle at the tip of the flower or to the round shape of the tuber from which sprouts forth this unusual plant. Cyclamen have been a popular cultivated plant since Plato's time, the fourth century B.C.
The genus Cyclamen resides in the Primulaceae family. This same family is home to about 20-30 genera such as Primula (primroses), Dodecatheon (shooting stars) and Lysimachia (loosetrife.) Depending on who you talk to, there are currently thought to be 19 species of Cyclamen, their range extending from France east to the Caucasus Mountains. Turkey and Greece seem to have the largest populations and greatest diversity.
I grow just about all of the species in pots in a cool alpine house and so far have had excellent success in growing C. hederfolium (so named because the leaves resemble Hedera helix or English ivy) and C. coum out in my zone 5 garden. I am about to try C. cilicium outside as that is reported to be almost as hardy as the previous.
As I mentioned, the Cyclamen plant is considered a tuber. A flowering size plant has a tuber that averages about 2"-3". In the wild, I have heard stories of plants with tubers the size of dinner plates. I would define a tuber as a short, thick, usually but not always subterrainian stem or branch bearing buds or "eyes" and serving as a storage organ. The familiar Solanum tuberosum (potato) is a tuber. The tuber stores starches and carbohydrates to keep itself alive during its summer dormancy period. In its native habitat this is a dry period and this is the main clue about how to successfully grow hardy Cyclamen in the garden, they need very good drainage! If you remember nothing else about growing these marvelous plants, that must be remembered.
I've found that in the average garden, the driest place is usually under a big tree. That's where my Cyclamen seem happiest. The tree roots suck most of the surface moisture from the top of the ground and that is where the Cyclamen tuber likes to live. Thats the second most important thing to remember about growing Cyclamen, keep the top of the tuber at the soil level. I have also found that a layer of grit around the tuber serves a threefold purpose. First of all, it makes it rough for our slimey enemy the slug to travel over and to get the leaves which are a delicacy. Second, it keeps standing water away from the top of the tuber during rainy periods which can cause rot. And third, it provides a dry surface upon which the maturing seed capsules can rest and drop their seeds to germinate. You can get granite grit at most farm and feed supply houses. I prefer granite in most situations, as it is inert and does affect soil pH, although Cyclamen like a sweet soil so it would be OK to use a limestone grit if you can't obtain granite
In my garden, I start seeing the first flower buds at the end of August. They appear before the leaves and flower over a long period of time. Most plants flower in a deep, clear, vibrant pink. There are however some white flowered forms and they are just as clear and pure in color as the pink ones. White forms will almost always come true from seed if the parent plants are isolated from the pink ones.
Thats another great quality about Cyclamen, once you see how beautiful the flowers are and realize how easy they are to grow, you're going to get hooked and crave MORE. And this is no problem as they readily set seed and there is really no trick to germination. Fertilization seems to take place without the aid of any insect pollinators as the unique design of the pendulous flowers are such that the anthers surround the protruding stigma and there is nowhere else for the pollen to go. After fertilization, the seed capsules make a neat little coil that takes them to the ground to insure that they will ripen in the leaf litter and grit that surrounds them. It takes a month or two, but cold weather seems to trigger germination. Once the tiny tubers establish themselves, you can expect to see your first flowers in a couple of years
I sometimes think that even if Cyclamen didn't have flowers, it would be a worthwhile plant to grow. The foliage has a lovely shape and is graced with slivery mottling patterns that are as different as snowflakes from plant to plant. Several strains have been isolated by collectors and they come reasonably true from seed. One of my favorites is the solid pewter leaf type. There are also fragrant strains, extra large leaf strains, miniature strains, well over 50 at last count.
In its native habitat the Cyclamen is an endangered plant. Centuries of collecting from the wild have decimated populations and the Cyclamen is now protected by CITES. CITES is the Congress on International Trade in Endangered Species. It is a worldwide body set up to protect not only plants, but animals that are in danger of extinction. It is illegal to import or export Cyclamen to or from any cooperating country without a CITES permit.
If the description of these plants excite you, you can join the Cyclamen Society in the U.K. There are currently over 1400 members worldwide. They publish a very informative journal twice a year and have a seed exchange that distributes seed that has been collected and donated by members.
Mail Contact: Dr. D.V. Bent
2 Pilgrims Way East
Martyn Denney firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also obtain seeds from the seed exchanges of other societies such as NARGS, the North American Rock Garden Society, AGS the Alpine Garden Society and HPS, the Hardy Plant Society.
There are two good books, both published by Timber Press.Growing Cyclamen by Gay Nightingale andCall 800-327-5680 for a free catalog.
The Genus Cyclamen by Christopher Grey-Wilson
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