Enchanting Cyclamen

illustration by Ippy Patterson

illustration by Ippy Patterson

by Tony Avent

The genus cyclamen has long fascinated me, perhaps for its unusual, almost magical-looking flowers as well as its enchanting silver-patterned leaves.

I first encountered cyclamen in the flesh in the early 1970s while garden-shopping at the old Western Boulevard K-Mart. There they were, forced for the Christmas holidays, with intricately netted, veined leaves, topped with stalks of bright pink pendant flowers that rose just above the foliage. They drew me in because they looked nothing like the petunias, begonias and impatiens I usually saw for sale. I was hooked.

It only took a matter of weeks, however, for me to send my first cyclamen to the horticultural promised land.

Undeterred, I returned to the store for a second attempt. By then, the holidays had passed and the bedraggled leftover plants had made it to the blue light special table. Some of the cyclamen I brought home went into my home greenhouse; others were plunged into the ground outdoors. Once again, they all soon died.

Doing more reading, I discovered the plants I purchased were hybrids of the non-hardy Cyclamen persicum, which were grown in specialized cool-temperature greenhouses and bred as short-lived houseplants without a chance of hardiness outdoors. Sadly, I chalked cyclamen up to one of those plants I’d never be able to grow, and moved on to other plants.

It can’t be

It was only a couple of years later – on a visit to one of the top local area horticulturists, Rachel Dunham of Cary – that I again encountered cyclamen.

This time, I was walking around Mrs. Dunham’s well-known Kildaire Farm Road garden as she pointed out interesting plants and dug up plants to share, when I noticed what appeared to be cyclamen leaves in her lawn. Thoughts raced through my mind…that can’t be cyclamen…what could it be…and finally, would she share?

Mrs. Dunham informed me that indeed, these were cyclamen, but instead of tender florists’ cyclamen, these were a winter hardy species, Cyclamen hederifolium, that had naturalized in her lawn. Incredulous at my good fortune, I stooped down with trowel in hand and began extracting the small underground corms to take home.

My luck with cyclamen wasn’t nearly as good as Mrs. Dunham’s. We obviously had a large difference in knowledge base and gardening skills. But, thanks to persistence over the years, I finally figured out what it takes to keep cyclamen alive in our region: keeping them dry in the summer.

Nearly four decades later, in 2010, I was fortunate to participate in a botanizing expedition to Crete where I saw my friends in their native Mediterranean climate. Here, Cyclamen hederifolium grows in open grassy hillsides among giant boulders, with corms nearly a century old and almost as big as dinner plates.

In Crete, however, rain is a scare commodity, occurring from fall through spring, and at about half the rate of our Triangle region.

Dry in summer

Because of the rainfall patterns in their native haunts, Cyclamen has adjusted its  growth cycle to coincide with moisture availability.  So in our area, Cyclamen hederifolium begins to flower in late summer to early fall and continues with a progression of new flowers, each lasting several weeks, until Christmas.

The summer-dormant foliage also emerges around early November while the flowers are still going, and remains until mid-spring, at which time, it goes dormant until fall

Because our rainiest months are July and August, it is critical to keep cyclamen dry in the summer months while they’re dormant.  So think about those garden spots that stay particularly dry in summer, and that’s where you want to plant your cyclamen. I have the best luck planting Cyclamen hederifolium at the base of trees or shrubs where little else will thrive. A deciduous tree or shrub is best, so some light can reach the cyclamen leaves while they’re growing during the winter.

As each flower fades, the flowering stem retracts the old flower though a clever spiral coiling mechanism. The coil pulls the developing seed back to the ground-level corm, where it holds on tight until the seed is ripe. The ripe seed are then cleverly coated with eliasome, a sugary substance enticing to ants and wasps, which then unknowingly assist with seed dispersal.

Over the last 50-plus years, the popularity and incredible demand for Cyclamen hederifolium has led unscrupulous collectors to gather them from the wild for worldwide import. Thankfully, the poor survivability of corms collected in the wild – combined with the implementation of new laws – has greatly curtailed this practice, and now, most Cyclamen hederifolium is grown in nurseries from seed. Fresh seed can be harvested in April and sown immediately.  We can generally flower cyclamen from seed in 12 months. I cannot imagine gardening without Cyclamen hederifolium in my garden, since it’s so good providing color at a time when many other plants are sulking in the garden. I hope they charm you as much as they did me.