The emergence of delicate hardy cyclamen, with their graceful pink and white blooms is as much a delight as the appearance of the first snowdrops. There are species that bloom in fall; others bloom in late winter and early spring. Some are more fragile and need warmer areas to thrive, while others are remarkably hardy and seem to thrive under the most hostile of garden growing conditions. We often forget that bulbous plants like cyclamen produce a corm or tuber because they need to survive through a period of drought. Visitors to Greece in late summer may well have encountered swathes of hardy cyclamen blooming beneath olive and pine trees, or perhaps occasionally poking out from a crack in a dry stone wall. They bloom in the dry season, just before the rain waters in the fresh seed which will grow in early spring. The seedlings have the opportunity to form their own food storage organs before the heat of the sun dries the ground and the rains cease for summer.
In cooler regions, such as the UK Cyclamen hederefolium blooms for several weeks, beginning anytime from late summer onwards before producing intricately patterned ivy-like leaves. I think I was aware of the leaves before I really noticed the flowers. When I worked in a florist’s as a boy we used the leaves of hardy cyclamen in orchid corsages. A leaf fitted perfectly below the lip of a cymbidium orchid, its grey and green marbled form creating the perfect setting for an exotic bloom.
Today in my garden Cyclamen hederefolium has seeded and spread prolifically. I am always amazed at how it succeeds on the dry, pine needle infested slope beneath a Scot’s pine which it shares with a dense covering of small-leaved variegated ivy. Suddenly the flowers appear and light up the ground for several weeks. There always seem to be new seedlings appearing every year. I love the way it ensures its future success: as the flowers fade the stems contract like springs to ensure that the valuable seed is sown to bring you more blooms in future years. How ingenious nature is!
Hardy cyclamen establish well when planted in the growing season. You can either buy pot grown plants or dry corms which are usually sold when the plants are in bloom in the garden. I started most of mine from seed raised plants acquired during the autumn or in late winter in leaf. If you buy dry corms it is worth soaking them in water for a few hours before planting. If you plant a dry corm in a dry spot in the garden it may just sit there rather than developing roots and starting to grow. Add plenty of organic matter to the soil and plant with the top of the corm just beneath the surface. You may have to look carefully to find embryo leaves and flower buds to guide you.
Whether you start with plants or corms make sure that you plant on a weed free site. Check to make sure the ground is clear of weeds as the flowers start to appear. Don’t forget those seeds are sown immediately and removing weeds in spring probably means removing cyclamen seedlings.
The leaves of Cyclamen hederefolium follow the flowers and grace the ground through winter. They make the perfect setting for early spring flowering bulbs such as snowdrops and the inter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis.
Cyclamen coum does it the other way round; the leaves develop in autumn forming clumps of rounded, heart shaped silver and green leaves; stunning with the black strap like foliage of Ophiopogon planiscarpus ‘Nigrescens’. The more squat blooms start to appear early in the New Year and can be anything from white, through sugar- pink to fuchsia. Cyclamen coum has a similar growth cycle and you will discover tiny cyclamen tubers in autumn, each bearing a solitary tiny leaf. Treasure them, transplant them and allow them to spread. They are not as able to cope with competition as Cyclamen hederefolium. Cyclamen coum prefers a more open spot on a rock bank or at the front of a bed or border. It soon gets swamped by rampant ground cover such as ivy of vinca. In my experience this is best started as pot-grown plants which are usually offered for sale when the plants are in flower. The tubers are tiny and soon dry out if out of the ground for too long.
For more temporary autumn flower colour the so called ‘mini’ cyclamen have become increasingly popular in recent years. These are dwarf varieties of the houseplant strains that are derived from the wild Cyclamen persicum. They show a good degree of hardiness and are suitable for autumn and winter outdoor containers in milder localities and in sheltered courtyard and urban gardens. They have become one of the most popular autumn planting subjects for London window boxes.
In most situations they collapse on lightly frosty nights, but rise again with the warmer temperature of the day. Severe frost and wet eventually takes its toll. In sheltered positions against the walls of the house or on a porch they will usually bloom until mid winter. I love their graceful form and woodland character when planted with trailing variegated ivies and rich burgundy ajugas.
A wide colour range is available through glowing scarlet, fuchsia, true cyclamen pink, pale lilac to white. I choose mine by sniffing each plant carefully; some have the most incredible fragrance! Why not enjoy some on your doorstep, in your conservatory or even for a few weeks on the kitchen window sill.
Get FREE Gardening tips and ideas from our experts in your inbox.