Robin Hansen is a local Northwest grower of these beautiful plants. I hope her words encourage you to discover and plant these consorts of a lifetime
By mid-August, the flush of summer gardens is slowing into fall, asters are beginning to bloom, the garden centers are stocking mums and pansies, and surely there must be something else to plant?
Well, there is — and not common, either — hardy cyclamen, or ‘butterflies on the wing.’ Many people familiar with the large, brilliantly colored florist’s cyclamen don’t realize there are at least eight or nine of the nineteen species known which are hardy here in Zone 7 of the Pacific Northwest. The rest will do well in more temperate regions nearer the coast. We have, after all, a cool Mediterranean climate, similar in many respects to that where cyclamen are native.
Cyclamen are native to parts of Europe, to the coastal mountains of Algeria, to Cyprus and the Balearic Islands, as well as to Turkey and Lebanon, and just recently discovered, to the war-torn mountains of Somalia. Although usually found in shade under trees or shrubs, some such as graecum grow in full sun amid rocks. Soil conditions may vary from acidic to alkaline.
In cultivation since the 1500’s, cyclamen have been a delight to the eye and nose for several centuries. Delicate twisted flowers range from pure white to deepest magenta on slender, gracefully curving stems, their petals reflexed like those of Dodecathlon. Few of their flowers are plain, most having blotches of pink or magenta to darkest wine at the base of the petals. Some flowers have ‘ears’ at the point where the petals reflex.
C. trocopteranthum (formerly C.alpinum) has flowers that are reflexed only halfway, giving them a windmill effect. Many have twisted petals, while some, such as mirabile, have fringed petal tips. The largest flowers and leaves belong to africanum with hederifolium a close second; the smallest flowers and leaves belong to intaminatum best admired from a trough or pot, or sited close to an entryway. A fragile appearance, however, belies the toughness of these little plants, which can withstand wind, rain, and snow. Consider C. Coum, which blooms from December here into March, through snow and temperatures into the teens. It may look a bit sad for a day or so after the snow melts, then it’s back to normal.
The nearly heart shaped leaves of the fall- blooming hederifolium have a lovely silver pattern edged with deeply scalloped edges, while cilicium, coum and intaminatum have round to kidney-shaped leaves varying from dark green to the nearly solid silver of some coums. The leaves and flowers grow directly from fat round tubers. With some species, the roots grow out from the sides of the tuber, leaving its bottom bare and smooth, while on others the roots grow directly from a small area at the bottom of the tuber.
Cyclamen are pollinated by insects: seeds develop in round, brown pods or capsules. The pedicel has a most unusual habit of curling from the developing fruit into a coil back toward the tuber where it rests for eight or ten months, until it ripens in June or July, when it relaxes slightly. The fruit dries, splits, and pops open.
The seeds, within, covered with a sweet sticky, gel-like substance are occasionally carried off by birds, but more particularly by ants, which account for the most peculiar places seedlings turn up. Cyclamen are also said to be propagated by cutting the tubers into pieces; however, I’ve never had the courage to do this, nor do I know anyone who has. The tuber itself grows larger over a long period of time (to the size of a dinner plate in such species as (africanum and hederifolium) but does not produce asexually. Cyclamen are easily grown from seed, given certain conditions and tremendous patience. Fresh seed germinates best, but even one- or two-year-old seed gives a fair showing. The seeds require dark to germinate’ a one-fourth inch layer of potting soil or seedling mix is sufficient. Temperatures of 55 to 65 degrees F. are best: the seed trays need to be kept moist during the time spent waiting for germination, which can take up to two or three years (I did say patience is required, didn’t I?) Seedlings can be pricked out after a year, so it is wise to sow the seed about an inch apart in a sturdy container.
Transplanting should hold no terrors. During dormancy is best, but I’ve been very casual at choosing transplanting times and loose very few. Just give them a good watering to settle the soil and continue until the tubers perk up in a month or so.
Cyclamen take two to four years to bloom, either blooming before the leaves show or with the leaves grown out. Since they are summer dormant (except purpurascens), mid-August produces the first flower buds on >hederifolium, followed by cilicium, intaminatum, graecum, cyprium, and mirabile. C. coumm begins to bloom in mid to late December and continues into March, followed shortly by pseudibericum, repandum and others. C. persicum is a spring bloomer, and well worth growing in a pot, so it can be brought in for protection, as it is not hardy Persicum flowers are intensely fragrant and the petals are exquisitely long and twisted
For fragrance, it is hard to ignore purpurascens, while cilicium has a distinctive honey scent. Cyclamen do best here in the Pacific Northwest with dry afternoon shade, except, as I’ve mentioned for graecum. If properly sited in sheltered areas, under birches, conifers, and broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons and pieris, where in summer the soil tends to be dry, wind damage is unlikely, as is rotting of the tubers from too much Northwest rain. The shade on the north side of a building, under hostas, ferns, etc. is also excellent. Some such as graecum and cilicium prefer to be quite dry in summer, while purpurascens and parviflorum must have some moisture.
A tablespoon or two of bone meal once a year is sufficient, but any fertilizer with much nitrogen is not recommended. Cyclamen should never be planted within reach of an irrigation system. Tubers should be planted at or just slightly above soil level, except repandum and purpurascens, which need to be buried about four or five inches. Pests are not very common in open ground. In the alpine garden or green house, aphids will appear occasionally. If the soil is infested with root weevil, an occasional leaf may show bites. I’ve found persicum hybrids to be a box of candy for weevils, while most others are pretty much left alone. A new nematode called “Exhibit” is available, but unfortunately not in small quantities suitable for garden use, and there are some specific parameters for its use. It is however, the least toxic and certainly, in my experience, a very effective remedy for the evil weevil.
Rot can be a problem if drainage is not excellent, and/or too much water is applied via irrigation systems.
A plant for dry summers that provides flowers and foliage when many others are dying away or not ready to bloom, cyclamen are marvelously well suited to the Pacific Northwest and not utilized nearly enough.
© Robin L. Hansen 1993 and submitted to my magazine BINDWEED.
Editorial: In England they recently searched for the eldest living cyclamen. They were able to identify one planted some 54 years ago. Having just celebrated a birthday of my own, I found it comforting to know that a tuber could be older than some growers. I wondered too; is there anyone in our neck of the woods who can speak to being home to such a venerable one? Do let us know, if you have such a survivor! **
I further add my own recommendation to the biological control “Exhibit.” It works! The major drawback to this biosys product seems to be its temperature specificity. As for the size or cost, go in together with your neighbors!
I wrote this years ago, little knowing that at a later date I would manage the gardens of a local and wonderful B&B. The gardens were planted over 25 years ago and cyclamen the size of coffee plates where everywhere, so were 20-foot rhododendrons! New owners, new hosts — “Couldn’t we get rid of those dead things and put in something like petunias that flower in the summer.” I quit!