As the warm season fades into the final days of Autumn, this is when the Cyclamen comes into its true glory. The Cyclamen is a tuberous, stem-less perennial herb that has traditionally been placed in the Primula family. This is because the Cyclamen flower closely resembles those of Dodecatheon ‘Shooting Stars’ which is a side branch of the Primula Family. In recent years the Cyclamen clan has been reclassified into the unlikely Myrsinaceae Family, which includes such plants as Ardisia, Lysimachia and other equally unlikely shrubs. Neither category sufficiently suits its unique characteristics so the Cyclamen is almost surely going to be reclassified again in the future, perhaps as a unique herbaceous species. There are at least 23 species.
Most are native to central and southern Europe. The familiar and very popular Florist Cyclamen of the Florist Trade, originates from Cyclamen persicum syn. indicum, which is a highly variable species native to Syria and Greece. From ancient times it has been called Kyklaminos, this original Greek name makes reference to the way the petals of Cyclamen appear to spin or cycle around the stem. This wildflower that can carpet hillsides, woodlands and meadows has been endeared in Europe and the Middle East since ancient times. In the language of flowers the Cyclamen represents ‘sincerity’.
While the Florist Cyclamen may be the most popular in today’s world, traditionally there are other very popular species more often found in the wild and woodland settings which include: Cyclamen europaeum that flowers in Late Winter; Cyclamen coum and C. atkinsi are Spring bloomers and Cyclamen neapolitanum which flowers in late Autumn. These are hardy, compact species significantly smaller than their hybrid counterpart: the Florist Cyclamen. They all feature blooms that are beautifully delicate some also feature a distinctive perfume. Sometimes the flowers begin to rise from the ground before the small marbled foliage appears. These species often spread to carpet large areas.
The increasingly popular ‘miniature Cyclamen’, are a result of extensive breeding between the smaller hybrid varieties of C. persicum and some recent additions have resulted from hybridisation with other smaller ‘wild’ Cyclamen species. They are sold as both ‘miniature’ and ‘micro’ plants that almost perfectly mimic their hybrid cousins but are much hardier and longer-lived. They are hybrid modern versions of their wild cousins.
Unlike the hybrid Florist Cyclamen, these smaller beauties usually have a perfume which can be quite strong in mild and sunny weather. Being that these have originated from true ‘wild flowers’ in their native habitat, they often multiply and spread to make impressive clumps whenever they are planted in an appropriate spot to their liking.
All of these smaller ‘wild’ species are relatively easy to grow in the garden. They prefer lighter soils that are free-draining but will often perform well in heavier soils if the site is sloping or if they are planted within a raised bed that contains a lot of grit, course pumice or stone mixed with peat to produce the perfect drainage and the moisture retention of woodland soils that their tubers demand. They are also highly adaptable to container growing.
Cyclamen prefer drier sites but with a constant level of moisture and dappled shade while in leaf growth. But they flower much better if their crowns can be in bright light or sun during bud development and flowering. The secret here is ‘cool’ sunshine; never scorching heat.
They often do well under the higher canopy of evergreen trees or around the base of deciduous trees. The secret is to place them where they can catch a patch of bright sun just at flowering time. When in doubt, it is better to provide more sunlight rather than less.
Being Mediterranean natives, often found in deciduous woodlands and meadow banks, Cyclamen naturally live in climates that are bright, cool (but frost-free) and sometimes damp during their Autumn, Winter and Spring growth and flowering cycle followed by a dry Summer dormancy. This Summer dry dormancy is essential to allow the tubers to harden and rest properly. When the tubers are subjected to significant Summer rainfall, they often rot. When grown outdoors in climates with significant Summer rainfall, increase soil drainage and plant them beneath deciduous trees, dense evergreens, or the eaves of a building or the house where they will remain dry and shaded during their Summer dormancy period. The best positions are situated so the tubers receive more sunlight as the Sun wanes away in Autumn and Winter when new growth will resume. This mimics deciduous woodland areas that remain cool, drier and shaded in summer and brighter and more exposed to precipitation during the cooler months.
The classic Florist Cyclamen can be a little more difficult to grow outdoors especially if the local climate is at all frosty, excessively wet or at all extreme. These are ‘precious’ Florist hybrids bred specially in the glasshouse in rather constant conditions. When grown outdoors Cyclamen persicum prefers cool and misty Winters with good air circulation but rather dry with more constant temperatures and much drier Spring conditions for good growth and flowering.
Heavy rains or hail can damage the blooms; constant wet will surely lead to petal blight or crown rot, while severe frost can turn the plant to jelly! Even with these adversities to overcome it is possible to get great results from Florist Cyclamen planted in a well-draining, sheltered spot in the garden. They can make a lovely Late Autumn, Winter and Spring display. They are ideal when grown in containers, flower boxes and raised beds that get at least a half day of sunshine and can be sheltered from all forms of extremes and kept very much on the drier side.
Often better results can be had if the plant is kept in its pot which is then partly sunk in the garden bed. This way the plant can be moved or covered against inclement weather. As a general rule, the pots are not watered until their soil is dry to the touch and just before they begin to wilt. Pots are often better placed in a tray of water with liquid fertilizer added and allowed to draw up moisture for an hour or less before being returned to their display position.
By far the easiest way to grow a brilliant Florist Cyclamen is under cover. While they thrive outdoors under eaves, they are best in a cool conservatory, glasshouse or sunroom that never overheats and also has excellent air circulation.
Many people grow them successfully indoors in normal household conditions. There are a few ‘secrets’ to success: choose a very bright or partly sunny but cool room. Because Cyclamen are Winter flowering plants, they prefer very cool conditions. Thus it is best to grow the plant in an unheated room where night time temperatures remain quite cool but never freezing and daytime temperatures resemble a mild Spring day.
When attempting to grow Cyclamen in heated homes, plan to shift the Cyclamen plant to an unheated corner each night or place on a window ledge where the Cyclamen can be sandwiched between the glass and a heavy curtain which, when drawn, will hold in the night time cold. Just be sure that the cold is never so severe as to allow freezing!
Water lightly! As hard as it is to believe, often only a few tablespoons of water a week are often ample. The amount of water a potted Cyclamen will require depends a lot on the relative humidity in which the plant is growing. Cyclamen naturally enjoy higher humidity. When grown in high humidity, the plant absorbs sufficient moisture from the air that it needs little more to thrive. But in lower humidity, especially in heated home environments, they will require more watering. If in doubt let the plant wilt lightly, then water just to recovery. This should soon establish how much watering is required.
Watering is almost always more successful when placed in a saucer beneath the pot. Allow the Cyclamen to sit in the water for no more than one hour and then pour off the rest. It is possible to water on the soil surface but avoid water collecting within the crown or onto foliage as this can result in sun spots but more likely crown rot and fungal diseases.
Cyclamen respond very well to liquid feeding. Plant foods high in Phosphorous and Potassium produce an abundance of bright, vivid blooms over the longest period. Liquid fertilizers high in Nitrogen will generate impressive leafy plants, which can be most beneficially in their early stages of growth to produce luxuriant plants. But avoid high levels of Nitrogen at flowering time as this will reduce flowering in favour of foliage. Foliar and/or liquid feed with a commercial plant food at least every couple of weeks. Many Gardeners liquid feed with every watering.
The biggest problem with Florist Cyclamen and most Cyclamen in general is over watering. Not far behind is poor air circulation followed by an environment that is too warm. When placed in a damp, humid, warm environment that would suit most indoor or tropical plants, a Cyclamen will quickly develop crown rot or fungus, usually Botrytis (Brown Mould). This is a fungus that produces brown-grey ‘fur’ over internal leaves, especially near the crown or on affected leaves and stems, that drifts off as a powdery cloud of spores when touched. Leaves often exhibit soft brown or grey patches that spread causing the leaf to collapse. Flower stems often become soft and also collapse. Flowers develop brown patches and wilt prematurely.
Sometimes leaves begin to yellow. When numerous leaves begin to yellow, often entire sections of flower stems and leaves will pull away from the crown. At its most extreme, the entire plant begins to wilt and may lift away revealing a rotted crown. Whenever a Cyclamen begins to appear at all wilting yet the soil is moist, assume this is crown rot. Immediately move the plant into a brighter, cooler and much more airy environment and allow it to dry out. Once the soil has dried sufficiently apply a suitable fungicide directed into the crown and over all foliage. Add a little extra fungicide into the liquid fertiliser in its next watering and maintain an airy, bright, cooler environment.
Cyclamen tubers can last for several years. The smaller varieties are particularly hardy and spread well in the right environment. Tubers seldom reach more than 1inch/2.5cm across and appear like a small brown nut. These must remain dry over their Summer dormancy and then will re-sprout as soon as conditions become cooler and damper in the Autumn. In climates with wet Summer weather, Gardeners sometimes dig them up in Late Spring and store them in, peat, sand or vermiculite over the warm months then replant them in Autumn.
When grown in containers, stop feeding and watering as soon as blooming finishes (usually in the Spring, but can be later with forced Florist Cyclamen). Allow the foliage to yellow and wither naturally. Refrain from any more watering! Then shift the pots into a cool and dry position, possibly a cellar or cooler shed position on the floor. Leave them alone until early Autumn. Repot them then and water once rather lightly. Once new growth begins start light feeding and watering to encourage another season of bloom.
Potted Cyclamen, C. persicum can develop sizable tubers up to 9-10 inches/22.5-25cm across as they expand over several years but usually remain no larger than a Mandarin or Tangerine. Well-grown mature Cyclamen plants with large tubers can result in a large and spectacular show. Unfortunately, most hybrid Florist Cyclamen only last for a couple of seasons before they become unproductive and are then best disguarded.
Cyclamen can be started successfully from seed. This is how almost all commercially sold Cyclamen are grown. Cyclamen seed develops as a round, small ball at the end of the flowering stem. As the seed matures, the flowering stem naturally curls inward and drops so that the seed ball rests near the soil surface. Collect these seed balls as the leaves begin to wither. When fully ripened, the skin of the seed ball will split open revealing a number of small buck-shot, round brown seeds. These should be planted immediately as they do not keep or store very well.
Sow Cyclamen seed into a very free-draining soil mix into flats or pots. A mix of peat and sand or peaty potting soil mixed with small pumice stones or vermiculite and African Violet type potting mix are all successful soil mediums. Try to create a fluffy and light woodland soil mix. Miniature types often germinate freely in free-draining garden soil. Either leave the seed on the soil surface or barely cover with soil. Keep the mix moderately moist; never dry or too wet and in a lightly shaded position. Cyclamen seed usually does not germinate well in strong light nor in complete darkness but prefers bright indirect light and rather humid conditions much like what the parent plants require for healthy growth. Often placing a seed pot inside a plastic bag set in a lightly shaded spot will produce quick results.
Cyclamen seed germinates somewhat erratically over several weeks, months or longer. Each seedling will start with a single small heart-shaped or oval leaf. Very slowly more leaves will develop. This often takes several months. Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, very carefully work them out of their soil medium with a dibble stick. To avoid structural damage, grasp them by the leaf rather than their stem or crown. Immediately transplant them into a freely draining, lightly enriched potting mix. One that suits most house plants but with extra vermiculite or course sand added for extra drainage will suit them perfectly.
Using a dibble stick, create a deep, small hole. Then dangle the seedling root so that it descends into the middle of the hole and then press in the sides with soil to securely surround the root. It is essential that the young seedling crown rests just above the soil line. If the crown is submerged within the soil, this can result in crown rot. Then water around the seedling until the soil settles. If the seedling appears to have sunken within the soil mix lightly lift it by grasping the strongest leaf and gently raise it while adding a little extra water to settle the seedling a little higher in its container.
Place the seedling flats or pots in an airy, cool, bright environment. Feed and water lightly and regularly. Keep partially shaded over warm summery months and much brighter as Autumn approaches. Plants can be potted on as they grow larger. Always keep the plants a bit pot bound and ensure that all potting mixes are freely draining. First flowers can be expected in 6-8 months for miniatures and often a few months later for Florist Cyclamen.
Miniature and species Cyclamen can produce reliable colour during the cooler months for many years. In the right location they can produce a great carpet of perfumed colour when most other flowers are scarce. Florist Cyclamen never last as long and are certainly more temperamental but the display they can create when properly grown is indeed rewarding and certainly worth the effort. Once the secrets of the Cyclamen have been mastered they can be depended upon to produce architectural beauty and glorious colour that will brighten and reward every day well into Spring.
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