When cruising the floral section of the local supermarket this week, I was pleased to see the first shipment of perky florist’s cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum hybrids). Potted cyclamen plants with elaborately marked ivy-like foliage and bright red, purple, pink or white flowers are easy to grow, making long-lasting ornamentals for the winter holiday season.
The parent species of these hybrids grow wild throughout frost-free Mediterranean regions. They can be found in dry, rocky scrub in southern France and Spain, and abandoned olive groves in Lebanon, Sardinia and Corsica. Fortunately, several pots of the cultivated form live in my bright northwest window, between November and April.
Of the almost two dozen cyclamen species, C. persicum is the most adaptable to hybridizing, and plant breeders have produced extra-large and double flowers with wavy petals, picotee bi-coloured edges and delicate fringing. The foliage has also been improved to display more elaborate patterns in bright pewter and dark green. Even when the plant is momentarily out of bloom, its decorative foliage carries the day.
Indoor cyclamen come in three sizes that can be generally described (in my terms) as jumbo (up to 16 inches/40 cm), large (10 to 12 inches/20 to 30 cm) and small (8 to 10 inches/20 to 25 cm). Sometimes there’s a smaller size, referred to as mini, or miniature (6 to 8 inches/ 15 to 20 cm). The smallest plants are descendants of Wye College hybrids, a perfumed miniature strain bred at University of London in the 1960s. Scent genes in cyclamen are notoriously quixotic and not every mini is perfumed. I notice shops more often give space to the showy larger cultivars, and you might want to grab up the minis if you find them.
Cyclamen know how to look after themselves outdoors, but rely on us to provide the right conditions when making a home indoors. The important factors are a cool location and moderately moist soil. They’re happy with bright indirect light, and prefer to avoid the warmth of direct sun. Consequently, a bright north or east window is ideal. Cool air temperature is crucial, and they’ll flourish in a location that is 50°F to 60°F (10°C to 15.5°C). The broad range of acceptable temperature is 40°F (4.5°C) at night and 68°F (20°C) during the day.
Cyclamen want soil that’s consistently moist, but never saturated. (They’re vulnerable to fungus diseases when kept too wet.) If allowed to dry out while in active growth, the foliage and flowers will dramatically wilt. I lift the pot every day to judge its water content by the weight of the pot. If it feels light, I set it in a basin of warm water to soak up a good drink and avoid wetting the plump tuber at the soil surface. Then, I allow the pot to drain thoroughly before setting it back in its permanent place.
When purchasing a cyclamen, check that it is moist and look for a generous number of flower buds just under the foliage; buds extend their tightly closed pointed petals just above the plant crown. Those buds will soon be rising, and more will form as the season progresses. Removing spent flowers (and preventing seed formation) encourages continued bloom. A half-strength water-soluble fertilizer with a higher middle number, such as 5-15-5, applied once a month until late winter will help to keep flower buds coming.
Cyclamen have a natural dormancy period, starting in spring, when temperatures begin to rise in April. The flower production will slow down, and some leaves begin to yellow. When half the leaves are yellow or bending down, it’s time to cut off all the foliage and put the pot in a cool, dark place for a summer rest. Check the pot every week and provide a bit of water to keep it from completely drying out. In August, bring the cyclamen back out into light and begin watering. New foliage will grow and you can expect another winter season of bloom.
I’ll warn you, cyclamen are addictive. If you have interest in growing C. persicum from seed, have a look at some of the hybrids and species in online seed catalogues (see Chilternseeds.co.uk and parkseed.com), where you’ll find seed for large hybrid plants, as well as a selection of the small scented miniatures. One is never enough.