Cyclamens are simply irresistible

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Cyclamen 'Friller' Scarlet. Picture courtesy 'Friller' Scarlet. Picture courtesy are simply irresistible and bloom for months on end.

Cyclamens never fail to delight gardeners with their swept-back flower petals resembling shooting stars, and their heart-shaped leaves embroidered with intricate, silvery patterns. Florists’ Cyclamens (Cyclamen persicum) start showing up in grocery stores and garden centres throughout South Africa in autumn, and for many people their first encounter with these fascinating plants is when they are given one as a gift.

If cared for correctly the plants will bloom continuously all winter and spring, but sadly most will wither and die, much to the horror of their owners! The good news is, if you provide cyclamens with the conditions they love, they will multiply and miraculously appear again every autumn when the weather cools down, freely providing their abundance of beautiful blooms year after year. 

Florist’s cyclamens are hugely popular as houseplants, but if given the right conditions will also flourish outdoors in garden beds or containers. They have been bred for more than 150 years, providing us with an astounding selection to choose from. Breeders have concentrated on increasing the extent and intensity of the leaf patterning on their gorgeous heart-shaped leaves. They have also developed all sizes, from small miniature plants which flower profusely to stunning giant varieties, with huge flowers and leaves - and every size in-between! Whether you have space for only one small pot indoors or on your balcony, or want a massed display in the garden, there is a perfect cyclamen just for you.

Cyclamen' Smartiz' Mix. Picture courtesy' Smartiz' Mix. Picture courtesy of the work with florist cyclamens occurred in England, Netherlands, Germany, and Japan. Hybridization has spoiled us for choice concerning colour, and today cyclamens are found in many single and bi-coloured shades of lavender, pink, rose, maroon, red, or white; including breakthrough hues like true red and pale yellow.

Modern cyclamen hybrids have many interesting flower traits including size, ruffled petals, double flowers, and the delightful ‘picotee’ flowers whose edges are a different colour than the flower's base colour. New cultivation methods and new F1 hybrid varieties now also offer longer-lasting, hardier and more regular flowering varieties. More recently, hybridization efforts have focused on re-introducing the lovely scent of cyclamens, which was sadly lost during the development of larger plants, so watch out for these.

The wild species from which the many florists’ cyclamen hybrids are derived is Cyclamen persicum, which grows in a typically Mediterranean climate with hot dry summers and warm wet winters. In these regions it can grow in great drifts of thousands of plants, filling the air with their sweet scent. Cyclamens grow wild in North Africa, the eastern Aegean and the northeast corner of the Mediterranean. They are found in Algeria, Tunisia, Karpathos, Rhodes, Symi, Chios, Cyprus; and from mainland Turkey through Syria, Lebanon, Israel and into Jordan.

Cyclamen 'Silverado' Purple Flame. Cyclamen' Smartiz' Mix. Picture courtesy 'Silverado' Purple Flame. Cyclamen' Smartiz' Mix. Picture courtesy thrive from sea level to 1200m, mainly in open situations, on “terra rossa” soils. Terra rossa is Italian for "red soil" and this type of red clay, typical in Mediterranean climates, is produced by the weathering of limestone. When limestone weathers, the clay contained in the rocks is left behind, along with any other non-soluble rock material. Under oxidizing conditions, when the soils are above the water table, iron oxide (rust) forms in the clay, giving it a characteristic red to orange colour. Compared to most clay soils, terra rossa has surprisingly good drainage characteristics, making it a popular soil type for wine production.

Cyclamens belong to the beautiful Primrose (Primulaceae) family of plants and have always fascinated gardeners. Cyclamen persicum is only one of 23 species, but by far the most well-known. It was introduced in Europe at the end of the 16th century, but for a long time remained a rare curiosity in specialty collections. There are many rich stories about cyclamen, and at the beginning of the 16th century Leonardo Da Vinci favoured the cyclamen and columbine by covering the margins of his manuscripts with them. The 17th century Flemish painters scattered cyclamens on the meadows of their paintings depicting Jesus picking flowers under the watchful eye of the angels. Louis XIV received them in bunches, along with many other flowers, to adorn the lounges of Versailles, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke in his Promenades of the wild cyclamens he discovered in the Alps. By the 1800s the cyclamen was prized by the Victorians for its winter colour, and quickly became a popular Christmas decoration - a tradition that has grown into a huge business today. So enamoured were the Victorians that they started breeding with the plant, and this led to the multitudinous number of cultivars that we see today.

Although cyclamens have been used as ornamentals for the last 400 years or so, they have been used medicinally for over 2000 years. The Greek doctor and botanist, Dioscorides, documented several medical uses for cyclamen that include its use as a purgative, to speed up the delivery of babies, to cause abortions, to make hair re-grow, and as an amorous medicine which caused the person taking it to fall violently in love. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, described how cyclamen tubers and roots were used to poison fish.  If eaten raw, cyclamen tubers are poisonous to people and can cause violent diarrhoea and even death, however, people in the Near East, dry and roast the tubers to break down the toxins, and eat it as a delicacy. Cyclamen flower petals are also used around the world to make tea.

Florists’ cyclamens bloom in autumn, winter and spring, providing colour when little else is flowering, particularly in late winter or early spring.  They remain one of the most popular flowering indoor pot plants but can also be cultivated outdoors. Cyclamens are highly recommended for window boxes, hanging baskets and pots. They are ideal for naturalising under trees, on banks or in a shady border, together with other early-flowering woodland plants such as snowdrops and primroses.

Some species of cyclamen are hardier than others, but the florists’ cyclamen is tender to frost. However, it can be grown outdoors in frosty regions as long as the plants are sited beneath evergreen trees and shrubs, or under a roof or overhang, which will protect them from frost.  Also, select a sheltered spot, away from freezing cold winds. If you are planting tubers or potted plants into garden beds, ensure that you do not plant too deep, ensuring that the top of the tuber is still visible above the soil.

Cyclamens growing outdoors thrive in dappled shade, and indoors they like good light but no direct sunlight. Although cyclamens grow extremely well in slightly alkaline soils, they are very tolerant of diverse soil types, as long as they are reasonably fertile and drain well. If you feed your cyclamen during the growing season, using a regular houseplant fertiliser for flowering plants, it will reward you will blooms continually.

The plant is a bit fussy about watering and more plants die from overwatering than under watering, so allow the soil to almost dry out completely before watering. Also, the plant can rot from the crown if watered overhead, making drip irrigation perfect for cyclamens growing in garden beds. Potted plants should always be watered from the bottom, or the leaves can be gently lifted and the plant watered around the edge of the pot - not over the tuber. The easiest way to water potted plants is to stand the pot in a shallow drip tray filled with water. Allow the plant to soak up what it needs before discarding the excess water. Do not allow the plant to constantly stand in a tray of water.

Because cyclamens do not like heat, and temperatures above 20°C may induce the plant to go dormant, one of the tricks to growing them successfully is to keep them cool. This is especially important if you are growing them indoors, so keep them well away from heat sources, and do not place them in hot rooms.

To keep plants blooming, remove flowers as they finish by cutting the stems near the base of the plant. Sometimes the petals will fall off and leave a round seed capsule that resembles a flower bud - remove these too, as well as any unsightly yellow or withered leaves.

As the weather warms up in early summer, cyclamens growing in the wild naturally go dormant, but in gardens where they receive summer watering, the leaves may persist. This is not a problem as long as rainfall is not excessive and the soil has perfect drainage. Because it is best to leave the tubers virtually dry during their summer rest period, many gardeners move their potted specimens to a spot outdoors which is sheltered from excessive rainfall and heat. As the growth cycle starts again in autumn, start watering and feeding regularly again.

Cyclamens can be propagated by seed, or division of the tubers. Tubers can be gently lifted and divided in winter when the plant is dormant, and seed can be collected at home and sown immediately.

The fruit is a round pod that, at maturity, opens by several flaps or teeth and contains numerous sticky seeds Natural seed dispersal is by ants, which eat the sticky covering and then discard the seeds. So, you need to collect the seed after they are mature, but before the fruit opens. Ripening seed changes colour from white to light brown, turning dark brown when fully mature.  If the plants are happy where they are growing, they will self-seed themselves in the garden.

Since the seed have no dormancy requirements, they are best sown fresh and will germinate in 2 to 4 weeks. They can also be dried and stored for a year or so if needed, but the longer the seeds have been stored, the more erratic the germination will be. Soak the seeds overnight in warm water before sowing. Use a mixture of equal parts seed compost and washed river sand, and cover the seeds carefully with a thin layer of fine compost, as light can inhibit germination. Mist the soil to moisten it lightly, and cover the container in a clear plastic bag. Keep in light shade, at a minimum temperature of 16°C. The germinating seeds will first form a small tuber, followed by a single leaf, and at this early stage they can be planted into small, 6-pack seedling trays to grow on until they are transplanted into their individual pots. With good care, your cyclamen should start to flower in about 18 months, at which point they can be planted into the garden.

If cared for properly, cyclamens are relatively pest and disease free, but they are susceptible to botrytis or grey mould which occurs mostly in cool, humid conditions. If you notice this greyish growth on your plants, spray the plant thoroughly with a fungicide, and remove the dead leaves and flowers. They can occasionally be attacked by aphids, thrips and mites, but these are easily controlled with organic sprays.

Caution: Cyclamen is toxic to dogs and cats. If ingested, this plant can cause increased salivation, vomiting, and diarrhoea. If an animal ingests a large amount of the plant’s tubers, heart rhythm abnormalities, seizures, and even death can occur. Raw cyclamen tubers are poisonous to people too, so keep them away from small children and pets.