Gardening column: Cyclamen hederifolium

14 September 2018

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THIS summer, we witnessed the Lazarus effect of heavy rain after a long period of drought. Plants are amazingly resilient. Many, hailing from drier climate zones, have adopted summer dormancy as a normal survival strategy. Wintergreen, rather than evergreen, describes perennial plants that produce foliage in the autumn that dies back again before the heat of summer.

Cyclamen are wintergreen sitting out summer as a dry tuber. Cyclamen hederifolium is an easy garden plant that has just started its flowering season, and will continue into November. The demure flowers with their characteristic swept-back petals emerge from unrolling circular stems which are probably behind the generic name: “kykloi” is Greek for “circles”.

Plants in the driest spots flower latest; their ivy-like leaves will appear after the flowers, in time for winter. The marbled foliage makes a lovely foil for snowdrops. Cyclamen coum, another great garden plant, does things the other way round: its more rounded or kidney-shaped leaves expand now, concealing the tiny flower buds that will develop from Christmas time into early spring.

Both C. hederifolium and C. coum thrive in the notoriously difficult “dry shade” that most gardens have somewhere. They have evolved to grow out of rock crevices and at the base of trees; so a dry stone wall, rockery, or the rooty ground around an established conifer or holly are suitable habitats.

In the wild, each species covers a vast area: C. hederifolium from southern Europe to Turkey, and C. coum from around the Black Sea, south to Israel and east to the Caspian Sea. This has led to much variation in the plant’s morphology, and, in particular, leaf shape and colouration. Taxonomists have identified distinct subspecies and forms, and cyclamen enthusiasts, collectors, and breeders have named cultivars; so there are plenty of particularly pretty plants to choose from.

C. hederifolium “Ruby Glow” has rich magenta flowers. C. coum “Ashwood Snowflake” has silver leaves with a darker green centre and pure white blooms. I planted a couple of C. coum “Golan Heights”, a white-flowered selection, under an Elaeagnus “Quick­silver” six years ago, and now there is a patch six foot wide, showing cyclamen’s ability to naturalise.

The progeny display the inherent generic variety; so the flowers are not all white, but shades of pink, too; the leaves show the glossy plain green of the parent plants, and silver marbling.

Cyclamen persicum has given rise to the florist’s cyclamen that is in the shops in autumn and at Christmas. They are almost hardy, useful in sheltered outdoor autumn containers in urban situations, but not suitable for the open garden. Indoors, they like a cool north-facing windowsill, and to be watered by standing in a bowl of water to avoid wetting the tuber. It is worth finding one that retains the species’ gorgeous scent.

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