Cyclamen heralds the winter bedding season, brightening up the entrance to garden centres and reminding customers that the time to start planting up their window boxes and pots is late autumn.
There are actually Cyclamen species in flower throughout the year, despite there being only 20 in number. The genus lies within the Primulaceae family, despite having no obvious affinity with primroses, though the plants do resemble the North American Dodecatheon in having reflexed petals. They are tuberous plants which grow in rocky areas, alpine meadows and beech woodlands in the Mediterranean, western Asia and parts of north Africa.
The leaves are normally heart-shaped but sometimes more rounded or ivy-shaped. They have hastate (arrowhead-shaped) markings and appear in shades of green and silver. Flowers on upright stalks range in colour from white to pink, red and purple.
There are hardy types for the garden, including autumn-flowering C. hederifolium Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and winter-flowering C. coum AGM. Then there are indoor varieties, bred from the more tender species, particularly C. persicum but also C. africanum, C. graecum and C. rohlfsianum.
Hybridisation to produce pot plant types was first carried out in 18th-century England and Holland. Now the range of cultivars encompasses large-flowered plants in many colours, with petal variations including double, picotee and frilly. A recent trend has been for highly contrasting foliage and fully silver leaves are very popular. Mini varieties that cope well with central heating have also been produced.
Cyclamen in the garden should be grown in well-drained soil and light shade and protected from wind. They thrive under trees or shrubs, which provide shelter and take up excess moisture. Most species cope well with summer drought but species C. parviflorum and C. purpurascens AGM may need watering during dry spells. Frost-tender Cyclamen should be grown inside, potted in a well-drained medium. They prefer an even temperature and humidity ranging from freezing to 21 degsC, with higher temperatures tending to push them into dormancy.
All species except the evergreen C. purpurascens AGM are dormant in summer, when they should be watered sparingly. During growth, plants should be watered moderately. The best option is to water from the base of the pot, preventing rotting around the top of the tuber. In a greenhouse, especially, this method reduces the risk of Botrytis.
Cyclamen in the garden are relatively free of pests, but customers should keep an eye out for vine weevil when growing Cyclamen in pots.
WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY
Michael Smith, director, WD Smith & Son, Essex "It is so much better to grow Cyclamen now than it used to be 20 years ago. I remember how in September you used to be cleaning them the whole time. But because the genetics are so much better you don't need to pick them up until they have been bought.
"They need a little more care than some. They should be watered from beneath rather than overhead, to reduce the risk of Botrytis.
"We only grow the mini type - mainly the Metis series from Morel. They are hardy, perform well in the garden and can be used in windowboxes. We have got comfortable using Morel genetics as they produce really strong, good-quality plants.
"The silver foliage variety we grow is C. Picasso from the breeder Schoneveld Twello. We produce two colours in this series, white and red.
"We hold a Cyclamen festival every year at the nursery, where we show about 30 to 40 varieties of the new and experimental lines."
Mike Saunders, owner, Elm Tree Nursery, Devon "They flower at a time of year when little else is out and other plants are dying back. I like C. hederifolium AGM and C. coum AGM, the most common and hardy species. One variety worth a mention is C. coum subsp. coum f. albissimum 'George Bisson', which is a variety found in 1994 by my wife and named after her father. I believe it's the only C. coum with a pure white flower — it is a good grower and can be quite beautiful, with green stems.
"Cyclamen plants are remarkably hardy and resilient. They're often found in graveyards, where they have naturalised over many years. The foliage can become good ground cover if you can get them to self-seed. They need little attention and come year after year."
Philip Burden, grower manager, Ashwood Nurseries, West Midlands "It cheers you up to see Cyclamen in flower in winter, peeping through the snow. My favourite is the evergreen C. purpurascens AGM, which has a scent like lily-of-the-valley.
"Cyclamen plants are pretty straightforward to grow and the hardy ones thrive on neglect. Their seeds have a sticky coating that attracts ants, which carry them off. Nothing naturalises Cyclamen as well as an ant."
Dave Anderson, planteria manager, Thompsons Plant & Garden Centre, Kent "We sell Cyclamen for around two months in autumn to winter, when it is very popular. We keep the plants outside but under cover, as they rot off if watered overhead. They can be tricky to maintain because they need a lot of picking over, taking off the yellowing leaves.
"To give our customers ideas we display Cyclamen in pots alongside evergreens like Skimmia and ivy, which has the added bonus of selling more of those plants. For greater impact we have them right by the door. They sell themselves, really — they are the only brightly coloured plant around at this time of year."
SPECIES AND CULTIVARS
- C. africanum is a frost-tender species - one of the parents of the potted Cyclamen found in florists. Leaves are large, bright green and leathery. Flowers, borne between September and November, vary from pale pink to a deep rose-pink.
- C. coum Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is one of the hardiest species of Cyclamen, surviving down to -18 degsC. It has rounded to pointed leaves that vary between plain green and silver. Flowers are pale pink to dark magenta with a crimson to purple blotch on the base of each petal and appear from December to April.
- C. graecum is a frost-tender species. Its leaves are very variable and include some striking patterns and colour combinations.
- C. graecum subsp. graecum f. graecum 'Glyfada' is a pure silver-leaf form discovered by Cyclamen Society president Brian Mathew.
- C. Halios series is a range of large indoor plants featuring white, red, pink and purple flowers throughout the year.
- C. hederifolium AGM is the most reliably hardy species. It grows well both in full sun and partial shade, including beneath deciduous trees. It has pink flowers with a purple-magenta V-shaped blotch at the base of its petals, which appear between August and October. Leaf colour varies from plain green or silver to various patterns in silver, grey, cream or pale green.
- C. hederifolium var. hederifolium f. albiflorum has pure white flowers, sometimes with pale pink in the throat.
- C. Metis series is a range of mini Cyclamen from Morel Diffusion that can cope with temperatures down to -8 degsC. It is available in a wide range of colours for sales between August and March.
- C. mirabile AGM is hardy down to -16 degsC. It does well either in raised beds or around the base of trees or shrubs. The flowers appear from September to November and are a pale to deep pink with a characteristic magenta blotch at the base of each petal. Young leaves often have a reddish tinge, ageing to silvery grey.
- C. mirabile f. mirabile 'Tilebarn Anne' features red colouring across the entire surface of the leaf, ageing to an all-over silver wash.
- C. mirabile f. niveum 'Tilebarn Jan' is a pure albino form.
- C. persicum is the frost-tender, fragrant species from which breeding began. The species has flowers with reflexed and twisted petals, in shades of white, pale or deep pink and pale mauve.
- C. Picasso is a mini silver-leaved series with flowers ranging from pure white to red and various shades of pink.
- C. purpurascens AGM is a hardy, evergreen species found naturally in woodlands. It requires well-shaded conditions and plentiful moisture throughout the year. Pale to dark pink flowers with a darker nose appear between June and September and its leaves range from kidney-shaped to heart-shaped. It is often highly scented.
- C. purpurascens 'Lake Garda' has an all-over silvery wash across the leaves.
- C. rohlfsianum is the most tender of all the species. Its leaves appear during late summer and are kidney-shaped with broad, triangular, dentate lobes with prominent ribs. The sweetly fragrant flowers are pink with a purplish magenta zone towards the petal base. The flowers have exserted stamens that make them appear similar to a Dodecatheon.