Few plants brighten the winter garden better than the delightful jewel box of plants known as cyclamen. This group is perhaps best known from the plants sold between Thanksgiving and New Year as florist’s cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) which is an often-gifted hostess plant during the season.
There are however more than 20 species of cyclamen found around southern Europe and North Africa, many of which are superior garden plants. Because of the often harsh, dry environments where they grow naturally, most cyclamen prefer to take the summers off going dormant as temperatures rise in spring. In late summer and fall, the foliage, which is often beautifully patterned, emerges with flowers rising with the foliage or later in the winter depending on the species.
The flowers of all cyclamen give away their relationship to each other with distinctive backswept petals as though the flowers were facing a brisk wind. The plants grow from large round to flattened discs of a tuber which in some species can grow quite large – to 8 inches or wider. Because of their summer dormancy, they do especially well planted in tough, dry spots like beneath the roots of shade trees. When happy, they can form sizeable colonies topped with white or almost any shade of pink.
Growing Hardy Cyclamen
Growing hardy cyclamen outdoors is quite simple as they are tough survivors despite their delicate appearance. Their one major requirement is soil that drains fairly well since the tubers can rot if they are too wet during their summer dormancy.
When planting, the top of the tuber should be just below the soil surface, an inch or less deep. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell which side is up on a dormant tuber. If you are unsure, plant the tuber on its side and it will be fine. Since they are small plants, make sure they do not become buried under falling leaves in autumn.
Once established, they are drought, deer, rabbit, and disease resistant, and clumps of cyclamen can last for decades. If the patch becomes overcrowded or the tuber pushes itself up to the top of the soil, you can thin the patches and re-plant older specimens either as they are going dormant or as they are coming into growth.
Types of Hardy Cyclamen
Certainly the easiest and most reliable in the Triangle region would be the ivy-leaved cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) which begins flowering in early fall before or as the leaves emerge. The foliage is just as lovely as the flowers and can be quite variable in shape from almost rounded leaves to narrow lance-shaped ones and from plain green to spectacularly patterned. They can be planted at almost any time and are the quickest to form colonies. As the leaves die back, look for the seed pods held by tightly coiled stalks against the ground. Ants will help disperse the seeds once they are ready.
Slightly more delicate and slower growing is the equally reliable baby cyclamen (Cyclamen coum) with small, round leaves and typically pink flowers in winter and spring.
Once you are bitten by the cyclamen bug, you might just find yourself on the search for an even greater variety of forms of these two stalwarts as well as the less commonly sold species. I know I’ve felt fortified during a long winter by seeing such dainty plants defy the coldest of days. If they can make it to spring, well then so can I.
Mark Weathington is the director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University in Raleigh.