Cyclamen - a race of thoroughly individual characters
When God designed the cyclamen he must have thrown away the mould after each and every creation because no two plants are ever the same. The result – a race of thoroughly individual characters varying endlessly in their subtle mix of flower colour, flowering time, leaf shape and surface markings, and even where they chose to grow. Collectively cyclamen flower over a very long period with each species being set to go off at very different times so it’s possible to have blooms all year round. And although these plants are thought of as woodland dwellers, its possible, with a bit careful planning, to grow some of the species in a range of situations, even in full sun in the open garden.
Most of us will be fairly familiar with the florist cyclamen, that glossy confection of splendidly preened leaves and perfect flowers, that appear en masse in our garden centres during winter. I use the phrase “fairly familiar” deliberately because I don’t think many of us have much of a handle on how to grow them. Purchased as pot plants they are generally held captive in their tiny prisons and subjected to a lethal regime of over-watering and over-warming until they are reduced to a mouldy mess and finally succumb. Even when a few wise souls crack the code and bring their plants through to dormancy they will find their pretties stubborn to entice back into flower and certainly not with the same effusiveness of their first efforts. And also a number of the modern day selections have extreme flower colours that are difficult to fit into a natural garden setting.
The good news is that there are much better species to be growing in the garden that easily outclass and outlive the florist cyclamen and what’s more they are easier to grow. In the rest of this article I will look at the best of these and share some of the things I have learnt regarding their germination, care and cultivation.
Like clockwork, during the second week in February, the first blooms of Cyclamen hederifolium appear in my garden. Nothing to herald their arrival ... not even a leaf or a bud, certainly nothing one would ever notice ... only these few little waifs of flowers determined to surprise. Over the following weeks they are joined by hundreds more creating pools and eddies of colour all over the garden but joined by a common theme. All are growing in places where you wouldn’t expect much to thrive, certainly nothing as precious as this.
The first intrepid flowers sprang from a patchwork of ajuga at the bottom of a dry stone wall where you would think not a drop of water existed and over the years they have continued their merry way along the entire narrow dry strip. Other colonies are growing happily and densely in the bare circles of earth at the base of trees and in the tumble of rocks and scree in a sunny rock garden where they have sent outriders into the adjacent lawn. The seeds are carried by ants that, growing tired of their burden, drop them before they reach home. This also explains impossible places that I have found hardy individuals growing, like gaps in lumps of concrete along walls and paths, which is not too far removed from where you will often find them in the wild.
C. hederifolium flowers for two to three months during those shortening days of late summer and autumn. As is the standard for all cyclamen species, when they first appear their scrolled buds are long and narrow and downwards pointing, but as they start to unfurl they draw upwards and fully reflex. Their flowers aren’t as large as their cousins’, the florist cyclamen, but they last for a long time before fading and are produced in profusion. These occur in various shades of pink through to dark magenta and, some claim, true red. They can also be pure white or white with a pink “nose”.
As the flowers fade and the skies darken, and the leaves begin to appear, this untiring plant beguiles us with its next exciting display. The second part of its name, hederifolium, means to resemble ivy leaves and these are produced in a thick, glossy mat that last throughout the winter and on into spring. But it's their surface patterns and markings as well as the myriad of leaf shapes that make the leaves so special. There are few plants that have such ornately decorative foliage and a mass planting can be more fascinating than an intricately patterned Persian carpet.
C. hederifolium’s abounding variation has meant that many strains, in my view too many, have been selected and developed. Two of the more interesting ones include the richly coloured Ruby Glow, and the unusual and recently the discovered novelty, Stargazer. As the name suggests, the flower stems are outstretched sending the flowers facing upwards rather than down. Types with silver and pewter washed leaves are all very attractive and they come in a veritable raft of names, Silver Cloud, being one of the most prominent
Lysander has deeply toothed silvery leaves that are picked out in dark green further accentuating the pattern and is particularly interesting because it originates from Greece, a vast, as yet untapped treasure trove of possibilities. Recently two new subspecies or variants (take your pick) have been discovered there. C. hederifolium v. confusum is a tetraploid from western Crete with fleshy, glossy leaves threaded with silver and dark, scented flowers. C. hederifolium v. crassifolium hails from the southern Peloponnese and has extremely large, almost circular leaves that are often clouded with sage-green or pewter and their margins markedly toothed.
C. hederifolium should be on the top of the list for all cool-temperate gardeners. It’s magnificently robust and hardy and frankly just defies time. It has no enemies, except for the occasional poke from an ill-judge gardening fork, and as the decades roll on the tubers grow into things the size of dinner plates and provide flowers by the score. I once saw a tuber that had split a shrub pot, bulging out of the top like rising bread. It had at least two hundred flowers.
Another truly hardy species, although slightly less accommodating, is Cyclamen coum. When winter tightens its icy grip this species comes into its own. In an act of brave defiance against the prevailing gloom this plant produces a succession of chubby little flowers that vary from white through to various shades of pink and deepest carmine. All have a magenta blotch on the base with the exception of forma albissimum, from the Golan Heights in Israeli Occupied Territory and that has pure white flowers without any markings.
Normally C. coum flowers are uniformly rounded with a concave twist to each individual petal and appear like little scrolled turbans. In my garden flowers they start to appear in May, reach a crescendo in July and gradually fade away around AFL grand final time at the end of September.
Unlike C. hederifolium the leaves appear long before the flowers and these, as in most cyclamen, are an extra special bonus, varying from plain dark bottle-green to striking patterns of cream and silver woven through the upper surface. Undoubtedly some of the most beautiful selections are the silver or pewter ones in which the entire leaf is metallic-grey and contact with water renders them positively phosphorescent. I prefer those forms with a contrasting dark green band around their edge to set off the silver and, for the same reason, those with a “Christmas tree” pattern. These have a dark green blotch in the shape of a fir tree running down the centre of the leaf surrounded by an infill of silver.
Usually C. coum has very round, or kidney-shaped leaves, like tiny water lily pads, but they can also be drawn out and heart-shaped. Indeed the further east this species occurs in its natural range the pointier its leaves become. The extreme version of this is to be found in C. elegans, previously named C. coum v. elegans, from Iran, where the leaves are shaped like a Medieval broad dagger and even their flowers are spiky!
Happily there are only a few named strains of C. coum and they appear confined to the silver leaf tribe. Perhaps the most justified is the “Maurice Dryden” strain originating from the first white-flowering plant to appear in cultivation in this group, it was raised by the redoubtable Kath Dryden and named for her husband. “Nymans Group” arose from a single plant selected at Nymans Nursery which had silver leaves with a dark green border and cerise pink flowers but many plants sold under this name are unlike the original cultivar. “Red Robin” strain, raised by me at Hill View, is probably the closest match.
This species is long lived and will grow in the most unpromising of places but because it produces its leaves early, it does need a little summer moisture. They do best in humus-rich soil with plenty of leaf mould to promote strong root growth, for this is their natural habitat, but they can grow well in quite dry conditions in stiff clay or in seasonally dry loamy soil as long as it is mulched.
In my garden the first sprinkling of C. coum’s little pink blooms across winter’s dull, grey face is a significant moment in the gardening year. It is one of the very first signs that the seasons are no longer moving away from us and we are on the brink of something new. Along with snowdrops, winter aconites and early scillas, Cyclamen coum is one of the jewels of the cold season, a subtle, quiet reminder of what’s to come as the juice of life slowly returns to the world, and we look ahead to the rising sap of spring.
Cyclamen repandum is not an early riser, often appearing quite late in spring, but it is an elegant one. It bears its vivid, magenta-pink flowers on tall graceful stems over deep-green, heart-shaped leaves that are irregularly patterned in silver, cream and pale green. Individually the flowers are long and slender with each petal twirled in a stylish upward half twist conferring a lively èlan. These are produced in a shock of shoots and unfurling buds and take an age to fade making this species a most garden-worthy subject.
C. repandum is a widespread plant in the southern Mediterranean and once took in several other taxa including C. repandum ssp peloponnesiacum, which is endemic to the very southern part of Greece, its special form from the Parnon and Madara Mountains, forma vividum, and C. repandum ssp rhodense from the Greek island of Rodos. These days C. repandum stands alone from the others but for the sake of simplicity I will briefly describe them all here.
C. rhodense is very similar in habit to C. repandum but its leaves are more grey-green and though they have similar patterns most of the upper surface have additional speckles and dashes. Its flowers, although very similar in shape, are white or occasionally pale pink which confers a slightly washed out appearance. This is a very apt description because I have found it an extremely troublesome plant to grow and its general absence from catalogues will attest this. Best to regard this species as a curiosity and look forward to see it growing lustily in its native homes and haunts on the slopes of Profitis Ilias on the fair isle of Rhodes.
Not so with C. rhodium ssp peloponnesiacum (formerly C. repandum ssp peleponnesiacum). Although this plant prefers shady, seasonally damp conditions like C. rhodium it is far less particular. In fact, I have seen them in the wild growing two metres off the ground in the bole of a tree and hanging on for dear life at water’s edge of a rushing mountain stream! In cultivation it does well in pots as well as the open ground and is unaffected by extremes of temperature. In its best forms its large, dark-green leaves are speckled and splashed with cream and making a perfect foil for its delicate, soft pink flowers. The form vividum has shrieking magenta flowers and fairly plain leaves, and can tolerate sunnier conditions but it is rare in cultivation.
There are a number of other spring flowering species that outclass C. repandum for outright beauty and some gardeners aren’t too keen on its rather intense flower colour but for sheer flower power it's streets ahead. If its vivid blooms are just too much, there is an equally lovely albino form, and of course there are the soft pink flowers of its close relation, C. rhodium ssp peloponnesiacum to choose instead. Over time, if you grow all of these close together in the garden, resultant generations will tend towards a more subdued and acceptable palette of pink and white.
In contrast to the species discussed so far Cyclamen purpurascens is virtually an evergreen with the old leaves hanging on until the new ones appear in the summer. It also has the most sweetly scented flowers being reminiscent of violets and without the peppery hints so often found in other species. These, unlike all others, are produced during the hotter months of summer, with a few straggling blooms either side of this period, and these range in colour from light pink to carmine. Reginald Farrer, the father of English rock gardening, and never one to hold back on the purple prose, thought it the best of all cyclamen and he writes in Among the Hills (1911), “they are so invariably, so indefatigably, beautiful. Their whole personality so winning and sweet. Exquisite they are when their pink blooms come fluttering up like butterflies.”
Despite this resounding endorsement C. purpurascens can be a tricky species to grow and a tantalising prospect to establish in the open garden. Avoid heat and dryness, choose shaded sites with deep leafy soil and avoid prolonged exposure to wind. Many commentators advocate the use of pine needles as mulch but I have found old pine bark just as useful. This species can grow quite long floral trunks, which has led others to swear by deep planting, and while this does no harm it really is not necessary.
Personally I find C. purpurascens an surprisingly easy going plant and much more tolerant than my Northern hemisphere counterparts seem to report. This is possibly due to the vagaries of greenhouse/alpine house culture and the precociousness of their weather. While Australian conditions are generally warmer and not as desirably cooler we don't experience the same peaks and troughs of extremes found in Northern European climes.
C. purpurascens has exceptional leaves. The basic type is medium-sized, orbicular or rounded dark green leaves with a roughly-toothed margin. These are slightly leathery with a irregular hastate pattern in cream or white. Silver leaf varieties abound, like glittering Spanish dollars, they positively fizz effervescence. Most originate from collections in northern Italy around Lake Garda, the home of that jewel of daphnes, Daphne petraea.
Undoubtedly the most superb forms come from Lake Bled in Slovakia. These are silver with a dark green netted pattern of veins running the entire edge of the leaf. In some cases the contrast is so strong that the opposing zones have a rukked or “picked out” three dimensional appearance. The Green Ice strain is but one fabulous example. Some of the darkest purple flowered forms have been discovered in Slovenia and what a joy to have both these traits combined in the one plant.
There is a distinct plain green leaf form from the Fatra Mountains in Slovenia, which has in the past been described as a separate species, and called, C. fatrense. It is said to produce more abundant and larger flowers but I think this is more likely part of the myth that builds around rare and interesting plants.
Sources for this species are limited in Australia but whatever gardeners can get their hands on, be they aristocrat or lowly commoner, I’m sure they won't be disappointed. Scented, summer flowers, all year round growth and superb leaves - this is a great species and an absolute must to grow.
If grown well and in suitable spaces cyclamen have very few pests and diseases but there are a couple that gardeners need to recognize and pay attention to. One of the most insidious is mites. These are usually Cyclamen mites or Two-spotted mites and cannot be seen with the naked eye. They damage the plant’s foliage by piercing the cells and sucking out the sap. The leaves will appear puckered, sometimes small and cupped, and begin to disintegrate. Often they will have a bronze sheen on the upper surface and blotchy and scarred underneath.
A general broad spectrum insecticide will not be effective against these lilliputian arachnids and specialised miticides, which target various stages of the creature’s life cycle, must be applied to achieve control. There are also some sprays which discourages mites by rendering the plant unpalatable. For those who eschew such things one can use biological control in the form of predatory mites and these can be obtained from the appropriately named company, Bugs for Bugs.
If potted plants are doing poorly, with yellowing leaves and losing roots, and seedlings are damping off then the culprits are most likely to be the soil borne water moulds, Pythium and Phytoptera. These are devastating diseases which can reek serious damage to a collection. Happily there are effective treatments available but these are moderately toxic chemicals so if opposed to this approach the only option left open is to destroy all the damaged plants, thoroughly wash all pots, tools and work surfaces and literally start again. It always pays to use a reputed potting mix and if receiving plants as gifts or purchases to bare root and soak in a protective dip. I use Banrot and find it to be an excellent protective as well as curative drench.
Cyclamen are easily grown from seed as long as a few basic principles are understood and adhered to. All species are self fertile and most will readily set seed. Those that prove difficult, C. creticum, C. pseudibericum and C. mirabile are good examples, need a little more encouragement, but no need to dab pollen onto stigmas with little brushes. It’s just as effective to spread one’s fingers apart through the base of the flower stalks and shake them. The pollen then drops from the anthers onto the stigma held below.
When pollination occurs the flower sheds its petals and coils into a spiral pulling the swelling seed-head down to ground level. Eventually they split, usually in the late spring, revealing the light brown seeds, which are shaped like knobbly little cyclamen tubers. These develop a sugary coating which I mentioned earlier attracts ants and these carry them some distance from the mother tuber thus ensuring space to grow. But even this most elegant solution sometimes fails. When the ants don't show up the mother tuber can be smothered with baby tubers all trying to gain a viable foothold around mum’s skirts.
Sowing cyclamen seed is pretty easy and should be practiced when rare or difficult varieties or species are involved. Seed is best sown fresh from the pod and this will achieve an even and perfectly-timed germination. When this is not possible, dry and old seed should be soaked for a day in warm water with a dab of liquid washing up detergent, and then sown. If seed is received out of season it should be held dry and cool until the natural time for sowing in late summer and autumn.
The seed should be placed evenly on the surface of a pot not quite filled to the top with a mixture of potting mix, loam and small amount of sand or artificial substrate, like seramis. These are then covered by a thin layer of the same mix followed by a thin layer of fine gravel (but NOT gravel dust!) or well-composted pine bark. At the end of this process there should be enough space remaining at the top of the pot to water it without spilling over. The seeds should then be watered in with a fungicide that prevents damping off and then placed in a cool, shady spot and left alone except for an occasional watering to prevent drying out.
Once seedlings emerge they should be given another drench with fungicide and kept growing for as long as possible in their first year even well into summer. This will enable the development of larger, more viable embryo tubers. These should be robust enough to plant out after two years although a bit of judicious pricking out may be required earlier to allow the seedlings room enough to grow. When excavating planting holes, especially around trees or in walls make sure the tubers have room to expand and plant so their tops are just visible. Never plant where soil is prone to water-log and top-dress annually with home-made compost, very old composted bark and leaf mould.
One of the best kept secrets in gardening circles in Australia is the species cyclamen. Long flowering periods, practically pest and disease free and beautifully marked leaves throughout much of the year should make it an essential plant in many Australian gardens. For years horticultural emphasis has been on the florist cyclamen, a flamboyant but more tender subject, which has been primarily used as an annual indoor pot plant. This is so the wrong way around! Time to give this infuriating nonsense the heave ho and get planting some of the species mentioned in this article. The benefits are so many and the results so exquisite you'll wonder why you hadn’t years ago