Why are there not more poems about the lovely cyclamen? Emerging in September in my garden on California’s North Coast, the short naked stems of Cyclamen hederifolium rise only a few inches above the soil, topped with delicate pink or white blossoms as if to say “we are stronger than we look.” (The name comes from the Greek kyklos, meaning “circle form,” presumably referring to the reflexed petals that look as though they might take off in flight from the flower’s circular center.) No leaves are visible at this time; they arrive a few weeks later, gradually getting larger and carpeting the ground. The leaves are astonishingly beautiful, ivy-shaped and marbled in green and silver; since they lie flat on the ground, they set off, rather than compete with, the flowers. The leaves have fully formed by the time the flowers have faded. Then I wonder which is the more elegant: the dainty flowers or the dramatic leaves, which, like patient courtiers, wait to display their splendor until the blossoms are spent.
Cyclamen is an ancient flower, and some think it can be identified in prehistoric cave drawings. It was certainly known during the first few centuries of the Christian era when it was put to many medicinal uses. Dioscorides, a first-century Greek surgeon and naturalist, wrote of the plant’s therapeutic values. In the sixteenth century, an Italian traveling in Greece discovered the Dioscorides manuscripts; Pietro Andrea Mattioli published them in 1559. One chapter, devoted to the medicinal uses of cyclamen, includes these recommendations:
The juice of the root can be absorbed through the nose to purge the head.
The juice of the squeezed roots is cooked until it thickens like honey. The root purges and cleans the skin; it cures blemishes and boils. It does good to a sunburned face; and it makes hair grow again.
It can be drank to counteract any kind of poison, but especially the sea air.
Cyclamen roots, beaten into little flat cakes, makes a good amorous medicine.
The tubers are still used as a cathartic (and a drastic one) in rural areas of Europe.
The potted cyclamen we see in florists shops—and which look to me like gaudy dowagers aping their younger sisters—have their origin in Cyclamen persicum. The breeding of these cultivars really took off in the mid-nineteenth century and they are now mass-produced, mostly in Holland and Germany, for their winter flowers. The large flowers come in a variety of colors; some are double and some have frilly petals. ‘Wye College Hybrids’, a less flamboyant, smaller, scented strain, is the result of crossing large flowered forms back to the wild species.Cyclamen is a member of the primrose family (Primulaceae) but bears little obvious likeness to the primrose. It is native to regions around the Mediterranean Sea, from Spain and Southern France on the west to Turkey, Israel, and Western Asia on the east, and to North Africa. One species is native to Britain but, when Mabey and Evans wrote The Flowering of Britain in 1980, it was already endangered and limited to two or three copses in the Kentish Weald. (There is still some difference of opinion on whether this English species is truly native or naturalized there.)
There are about twenty species of cyclamen and many are hardy. It is possible to have flowering cyclamen in the garden nearly every month of the year—and they don’t even need dead-heading! The dying petals drift to the ground and allow the dramatic leaves full sway. In my garden, I have mostly Cyclamen hederifolium, which is probably the easiest to grow [USDA zone 6; Sunset zones 2-9, 14-24] and spreads rapidly into the most unexpected places, such as the middle of the lawn where I do not have the heart to cut them out. The autumn flowers are usually deep rose or pale pink, but some are white, and others tend towards mauve. Appearing at the same time, but on taller stems, are the strongly fragrant, crimson flowers of C. purpurascens [USDA zone 6; Sunset zones 4-9, 14-24]. Also with crimson flowers, is C. coum, about the same height as C. hederifolium; it blooms in winter and early spring, with round, deep green leaves, unlike the ivy shaped leaves of the other two, and usually lacking the marbling that makes the others so striking. [USDA zone 6; Sunset zones 2-9, 14-24]
After flowering, the stalk coils in a spiral that bends over and draws the ripening seeds down to the soil. Ants come for the seeds, eat the tasty film (an aril) off the tiny grains, and drop the cleaned seed where they readily sprout. This accounts for their haphazard distribution in the garden. They are happily thriving in what, for coastal Humboldt County, is called “full sun” as well as in shade. Our cool coastal climate must mimic for them their Mediterranean origin.
Although the books say cyclamen require rich, porous soil with lots of humus, I have found that they thrive even in the most inhospitable terrain and seem to reseed there most readily. They do, however, like to be dry during their summer dormancy, and are often found in the wild on dry, rocky banks. Despite their apparent fragility, they will reseed happily amongst other established plants and manage to hold their own. Once established, they take off with vigor.