Cyclamen for Winter and Spring

By: Richie Steffen

Richie Steffen is curator of horticulture for the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, where he manages the rare…

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A pale form of Cyclamen pseudoibericum. Author’s photographs from the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden, except as noted - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/cyclamen-for-winter-and-spring/#sthash.7XN24K6J.dpuf

A pale form of Cyclamen pseudoibericum. Author’s photographs from the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden, except as noted

There is something captivating about a cyclamen. Perhaps the daintiness of the reflexed petals or the bright clean colors of the flowers engage our eyes. Certainly, the handsome silver-streaked leaves, spread like heart-shaped doilies under the blossoms, add to the magic. The Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden has focused on rare and unusual plants, researching the best way to cultivate treasures such as the many species of cyclamen. Over the years we have grown a number of species and selections, with varying degrees of success. I hope our experiences will encourage others to seek out and grow these marvelous plants. Many Cyclamen species can be a challenge to find, but specialty organizations, such as the Cyclamen Society and the North American Rock Garden Society, make seeds of the species available to their members and others.

Cyclamen alpinum

Cyclamen alpinum

Cyclamen alpinum
(formerly C. trochopteranthum)

It is a rare pleasure when taxonomists change a plant name to something easier to pronounce; such is the case with this species. Cyclamen alpinum is a charming and hardy plant. Similar to the more commonly grown C. coum, the true enchantment of this species shines through with the opening of the first winter flowers; the short petals spread and twist until they lie flat, giving each blossom the appearance of a propeller. Our plants barely survived in the open garden; however, once lifted and grown in pots, they began to thrive and flower heavily. We then planted them in a new alpine bed with excellent drainage, limited competition, and open bright shade. Even with these seemingly ideal conditions, they returned to a struggling existence. We have concluded that this species responds best to the controlled regularity of water and fertilizer in a containerized situation. The potted ones continue to thrive, but I do give them some protection when the temperatures drop below 28°F, simply to keep the foliage unblemished.

Cyclamen coum foliage

Cyclamen coum foliage

Cyclamen coum

No winter garden is complete without Cyclamen coum. Easy to grow and fully hardy [USDA zone 6; Sunset zones 2-9, 14-24], with captivating foliage and flowers, it brightens the gray days of winter like no other plant. Rounded, heart-shaped leaves emerge in fall, often with varied silver and gray tones painted onto a deep green base. Midwinter triggers a flush of stubby little magenta, pink, or white flowers poking up through the low dense foliage. Tough and resilient, C. coum will grow well with half-day sun to heavy shade, and is amazingly tolerant of dry conditions. Plant it in a location with good soil and little competition from other larger plants when its foliage is present. Plants can be slow to establish, but they will reward your patience with ample seedlings.

Cyclamen parviflorum, a close relative, is quite similar to C. coum but smaller in all parts. It is slower in growth and may be best for pots or troughs, although it has grown successfully tucked between the rocks in a shady portion of our rock garden.

Cyclamen creticum

The colorful gray- and silver-speckled leaves of Cyclamen creticum are among the most beautiful in the genus. We have not successfully grown this species in the ground and probably never will; it is just a little too tender here in Seattle, even in the most protected garden locations [USDA zone 8]. We have, however, had limited success with it as a container plant. The tuber has been frustratingly slow to gain size, and, for several years, it only produced a few leaves and little else. The sweetly fragrant flowers are generally pure white and dance delicately above the gray green leaves. Try it in a well-drained soil mix with some compost. Water the tubers regularly during growth and occasionally while dormant. I have started to experiment with slow release granular fertilizers at half strength once a few leaves appear in winter. There now seem to be more leaves each year, but only a couple of short-lived, albeit showy, blooms to date. I hope to have a lush and floriferous pot sometime before I retire.

Cyclamen libanoticum

The large flowers and glossy leaves of this hardy species have always been enticing. The first plants we grew arrived mislabeled as C. pseudibericum but did not look quite right. When the tubers burst into flower, I expected a sweet fragrance; instead, I was greeted by the distinct petroleum scent of C. libanoticum. Some sources list this species as tender, so I dutifully dug up beautiful specimens from the garden, fearing their loss in a cold winter. They were never the same, sulking in their pots and gradually declining until they died. We were able to gather seed and started a new batch. This second group has been planted in the garden in bright shade with rich organic soil, about ten feet from the original location of their parents. After four years in the ground, they have finally shown signs of increasing, although they do not seem entirely happy about it. I resist the urge to relocate them again. They are a must-have for their large, showy, soft pink blooms that appear from late winter through early spring—when little else colors the garden. Provide dappled or light shade and good welldrained soil that receives a little water while the bulbs are dormant. [USDA zone 9]

Cyclamen persicum in the editor’s garden. Photograph by RGT - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/cyclamen-for-winter-and-spring/#sthash.7XN24K6J.dpuf

Cyclamen persicum in the editor’s garden. Photograph by RGT

Cyclamen persicum

The parent of the modern-day florists cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum is often overlooked in its wild form. The unaltered species provides a show of elegance and grace not found in its overly developed modern progeny. Grass green leaves emerge in fall, often banded with soft silver and gray tones that provide a lovely contrast to the early spring blooms. The sweetly scented flowers are held in a regal fashion well above the foliage. Our seedlings were pale pink with a bright rose pink “nose,” although white with the same rose nose is common as well. This species cannot tolerate a heavy frost [USDA zone 9; Sunset zones 15-24]. Our potted plants were killed when a door to the alpine house was accidentally left open over a frosty weekend. During the summer dormancy, provide occasional watering and keep them out of the baking sun.

A deep pink Cyclamen pseudibericum in the editor’s garden. Photograph by RGT - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/cyclamen-for-winter-and-spring/#sthash.7XN24K6J.dpuf

A deep pink Cyclamen pseudibericum in the editor’s garden. Photograph by RGT

Cyclamen pseudibericum

A well-grown patch of Cyclamen pseudibericum is a fabulous sight and will surely drive all of your gardening friends into a fit of plant envy. This is one of the largest hardy Cyclamen species you can grow; it will catch your eye even when out of bloom. Large leaves emerge in late fall and unfurl to a dark glossy green, often subtly marked with bands of gray. Large, typically bright rose purple or occasionally pale pink flowers are borne in abundance above the leaves from late winter to early spring, generally after the flowers of C. coum have faded. There are several plantings around the Miller Garden. The most successful are in bright to medium shade in a well-drained sandy loam. These areas are somewhat dry in summer, but do receive an occasional watering. We recently added tubers to a shady alpine bed filled with coarse sand; they were slow to settle in, but have steadily increased over the last three years. [USDA zone 7]

Cyclamen repandum

Cyclamen repandum is one of the loveliest of the hardy species; with its delicate pale to deep pink fragrant flowers and beautiful silver mottled leaves, it is well worth trying in the garden. Unfortunately, we have never successfully established it in the Miller Garden. Apparently, the tubers resent drying out, even during dormancy, and prefer a woodland setting. Try it in bright shade with a good rich soil; deep planting (two to six inches) is often recommended. Our best plants grew in pots and flowered every year. After reading of their temperamental response to container culture, I planted them in the garden; they never returned. The key is to leave well enough alone. Even though several plantings have failed over the years, we recently opened up an area in our woodlands in relatively deep shade with a thick layer of conifer duff. Shortly afterwards, cyclamen seedlings sprouted on their own and the foliage bears a strong resemblance to this species. I cannot wait for these to flower and confirm their identity. Perhaps the best way to grow them is to stop trying so hard. [USDA zone 7; Sunset zones 4- 9, 14-24]

Two closely related species are Cyclamen balearicum and C. peloponnesiacum. Neither is reliably hardy in much of the Northwest. We have raised them in terra cotta pots in a cool greenhouse. They are charming species with attractive mottled leaves and fragrant flowers. Our plants struggled for years until I learned that they need occasional watering during their summer dormancy. Since then, they have gained in size and started to flower, although the flowering has been scant. The culture for these species is much the same as for C. repandum: cool woodlands with good soil and occasional summer water. Some recommend that the tubers of all three species be planted to a depth of four to six inches, even in containers. Our tubers are only two inches deep in pots and are growing fine, but slowly.

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A Cyclamen Resource Guide