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Plant profile: Hardy cyclamen

by Tom Fischer on October 29, 2010

in Gardening

Tom Fischer reviews a plant per month on our blog.

As much as I love tulips and daffodils — the “big guns” of the bulb world — I sigh with disappointment whenever I see a garden where they are planted to the exclusion of every other kind of bulb. For the world of bulbs is vast, and most gardeners plant only a small fraction of the bulbs that could and would make their gardens more beautiful and interesting.

Near the top of the list of bulbs that deserve to be more widely planted are the members of the genus Cyclamen. Not the potted hybrids of C. persicum that appear by the million during what are bafflingly known as the holidays, and are both gross of flower and tender of constitution, but the small, hardy species C. hederifolium and C. coum. (There are others, of varying degrees of hardiness, but these two are the most easily found, and since they are both charming, there is no need to go lusting after rarities.) They have the further advantage of blooming when most other bulbs do not, so let’s take a closer look at them.

The ivy-leaved cyclamen, C. hederifolium, blooms in fall (usually September into October) with a generosity that warms the gardener’s heart. The usual color of the delicate flowers is a light mauvish pink, although dark pinks and pure whites also occur. They all look good together, so it doesn’t really matter unless you have a color fetish. Lovely as the flowers are, they are outshone by the dark green, heart-shaped leaves, which are beautifully marked with light green and silvery gray in an endless variety of patterns.

Cyclamen coum, which doesn’t have a convenient common name, differs from ivy-leaved cyclamen in its bloom time (early spring) and in having smaller, rounder leaves. The flowers come in the same range of colors (dark pink verging on crimson through white) and can exhibit an equally thrilling range of leaf color and patterns. It is not as vigorous as ivy-leaved cyclamen, however, and is apt to be crowded out if you intermingle the two species.

Both species are hardy to USDA Zone 5 and do best in well-drained, humusy soil in dappled (not heavy) shade. Once established, they are moderately drought-tolerant. Plant the tubers (for that is what they are, rather than true bulbs) in early fall, about two inches deep. They have a tendency to self-sow, which you will encourage if you have a grain of sense. And if you’re truly adventurous, you’ll raise your own plants from seed. This is easily done indoors under fluorescent lights, and because there are seed strains that have been developed for particular flower colors or leaf patterns or even fragrance, you can get some very choice plants that way.

A word of caution: cyclamen are habit-forming. Once you have a few you will probably want more, and before long you’ll be forgetting to pay the bills or make the children’s dinner. The remedy for that, of course, is to set up an automatic bill-payment system online and leave a few cookbooks open on the kitchen counter — they’ll get the hint eventually.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joseph Tychonievich October 29, 2010 at 8:51 am

I love cyclamen… especially hederifolium. The flowers are such a welcome fresh change in the fall, and I love how the leaves, which are stunning, hang around all winter and into spring.

2 plant October 30, 2010 at 5:18 am

There is an interactive version of the USDA plant and tree hardiness zone map covering Oregon at http://www.plantmaps.com/interactive-oregon-usda-plant-zone-hardiness-map.php

3 Mark December 8, 2011 at 1:32 pm

I saw “Cyclamen: A Guide for Gardeners, Horticulturists and Botanists” by Christopher Grey-Wilson at my library years ago and immediately became obsessed with this plant. I now have 10 species of hardy cyclamen potted on my deck, and a few of the hardier species in my garden.

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