This holiday season, I bought a dozen florists' cyclamen to decorate my table for a buffet. Cyclamen, with their curiously-shaped noding flowers that rise up over prettily patterned leaves are strikingly decorative and elegant.
Here in L.A., the cultivated florists' version is one of the most popular flowering plants for wintertime. The blooms range in color from deep burgundy to pure white, and last a long time.
I adore cyclamen, and for a time in my gardening life, I was obsessed by their beauty. Cyclamen are native to the Mediterranean area and into Central Asia. They are tuberous plants, related to the primrose family. The name comes from the Greek "cyclos" or circle, and refers to the circular or spiral twisting of the stem of the fruit that occurs after the flower is fertilized. The stem draws the fruit down to the soil as it coils, protecting it from grazing animals and birds, also bringing it close to where ants, attracted by the sticky, sugary coating on on the burst fruit, disperse the seed to the surrounding soil.
There are some 20 species. Cyclamen persicum is the species most frequently used to breed the fancy greenhouse varieties sold for holidays, but several cyclamen species are used as garden plants in certain parts of the US.
In the Pacific Northwest, Cyclamen hederifolium - or ivy-leaved cyclamen - is easily grown in shady gardens or beneath the canopies of trees. It blooms in the fall and winter. Swathes of cyclamen bloom in the mounded compost beneath fragrant witch-hazel and daphne in the Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. This cyclamen's autumn blooms are followed by those of cyclamen coum, blooming in winter. Both are commonly available in nurseries, including by mail order or - if you're in the Pacific Northwest at the right time, from the annual Plant Sale held by the Arboretum. At the Plant Sale you might find special varieties of these charming plants with extraordinarily marked leaves, or with white blossoms instead of pink.
Perhaps the biggest booster of garden cyclamen is gardener Nancy Goodwin, of Montrose Garden in Hillsborough, North Carolina. She aspired to grow every known species of cyclamen, and at one time opened a nursery to help other gardeners do the same. After ten years of operation, the nursery was closed, victim of its own success. Goodwin felt that the rigors or running a volume business took time away from doing what she loved best - gardening. Goodwin still holds seminars at Montrose.
By happy coincidence, I was gardening in the perfect climate for growing cyclamen during Montrose's brief heyday. Nancy's mail-order catalogs were wonderfully written, and I stocked my garden with many of her plants. In addition to cyclamen, she offered a wonderful variety of asters, dianthus, and named varieties of heuchera, or Coral Bells.
I've written before about my family's tendancy to plunge enthusiastically into hobbies and interests. Hooked on this charming genus, I joined the Cyclamen Society and soon was signing up for the seed exchange.
If you like to grow annual flowers and vegetables from seed, you would enjoy being part of a garden seed exchange. You'll find these at many local gardening clubs as well as local chapters of enthusiasts devoted to certain types of plants. Here you can find seeds for specially selected plants, along with advice from gardeners who know what they're doing. You'll make gardening friends as you keep and exchange seed from your own plants.
It's particularly rewarding when you finally see the blooms of a plant that is more challenging to grow from seed. Bulbs and tuberous plants take a while to germinate, and a while to come to flowering size - but when one you've grown finally blooms, it's very rewarding.
Cyclamen take months to germinate, and about 3 years to come to blooming size. In its first year, a cyclamen tuber is about the size of a pea. It must grow to the size of a radish before it's ready to bloom.
When we moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, I had two flats of two-year-old cyclamen tubers, dormant over the summer, and I was determined not to let them die. We drove down the coast with the flats in the back of the car, checking on them at each stop. Arriving in Topanga, I planted what I could in my dry garden and tried to keep the rest alive. The dry climate of Southern California, and the coarse clay soil of my garden proved more than even these hardy plants could endure. I couldn't keep the little pots from drying out. In despair, I tipped a bunch of them out into the ivy bed bordering my driveway, beneath the canopy of a Coast Live Oak, letting them take their chances instead of dooming them to death in a 2" plastic pot.
Ten years later, I have one vigorous survivor. It is a specimen of cyclamen persicum, the species, and it thrives and blooms more and more each year. If you look at the picture, taken last spring, you'll see another bloom to the side. This is a second survivor, slower to come to maturity, and I'm not sure which species it is yet. With any luck, this spring it will have more leaves and blossoms, so I can compare them to the books and identify it.
Cyclamen's interesting shape and nodding flowers make it a good subject for visual arts and crafts. A couple years ago, in a thrift store, I found a Weller cache-pot with a cyclamen pattern on it. It makes a perfect container to display a cyclamen in bloom.
If you live in a moderate climate in the US, try cyclamen hederifolium in your shady garden. Or bring a beautiful showy florists' variety inside for your winter pleasure. You'll enjoy it.