Gardening Unplugged - Hardy Cyclamen

Gardening Unplugged - Hardy Cyclamen

By Published April 26, 2023

Shop for Cyclamen at Plant Delights Nursery

In this episode of Gardening Unplugged, Doug Ruhren, Senior Horticultural Supervisor for Juniper Level Botanic Garden, chats about the best species of hardy cyclamen to grow and takes guests on a walk through the shade garden to see the variety of this wonderful perennial. This episode was recorded on a cold and rainy February day during our 2023 Winter Open Nursery and Garden Days.


Video Transcription

We are talking about cyclamen today. I think most people know the big ‘Florist’s’ cyclamen and you know, the modern hybrids. You know the plants are often like, this big and they're like, that tall in bloom. That cyclamen – persicum; Persicum meaning “from Persia” and the wild parents of the florist cyclamen are native to the Middle East and Persia being the old name for Iran. Cyclamen persicum is usually not winter hardy, it won't survive freezing temperatures. So, if you took one of those florist’s cyclamen and planted it outside, it would probably die over winter. The easiest one to grow, and probably the one that's available in the most variety of seed strains, is Cyclamen hederifolium. Hederifolium means “leaf like ivy.” Hedera is the scientific name for English ivy and folium, of course, just meaning foliage. And the typical wild Cyclamen hederifolium has an ivy-like leaf and, even in the wild, the leaves are typically mottled with silver.

Cyclamen are propogated by seed

I've worked with cyclamen for many decades and I, last century, worked in a nursery that specialized in hardy cyclamen and I can't remember ever seeing a Cyclamen hederifolium with a solid green leaf. Now, you sometimes will get seedlings with, you know, a leaf that's mostly silver or even, you know, obviously not silver but I mean silver-colored or solid silver. And you wouldn't tend to see this kind of variation in the wild, but people have been growing Cyclamen hederifolium for centuries and, over the years, they've selected some with exceptional foliage color and also different shapes of foliage. You see these two? Though they are the same species you see the leaf shape is quite different and so there's some with real narrow leaves. And if you went in the nursery here, you'd see these different seed strains and when you look at the flat, they're not all uniform because they're seed strains. These aren't clones, you know, like if you take a cutting of a philodendron or something well, every stem you root is a clone of the original plant so they're absolutely identical. Well, the cyclamen largely are not grown by that type of propagation, they're only grown from seed so there's a lot of genetic variation within a seed strain.

So the nice thing about buying them when they have the foliage, you can choose out the one you like the like the best out of a seed strain and then their offspring will often be very close  to, you know, this is a narrow leaf seed strain a lot of their offspring would be like the parent plant. Sort of like a litter of puppies, where their parents aren't purebred you know though a lot of them will look like the parents but not all of them, so they're seed strains and not…

A really curious thing about cyclamen is that the flowers are produced up above the foliage but after the flower is pollinated the flower stalk doesn't, you know, like just… it doesn't stay up. It doesn't flop over. The flower stalk curls and draws the fruit down to ground level and it's like this spring. And I'll pass that around and you can see it in the pot. And the different species some coil from the top of the flower stalk some coil from the bottom of the stalk and you know, ultimately the whole flower stalk is coiled.

And there is one species, where the flower stalk doesn't coil, but it just flops over and hederifolium is a fall, late summer, fall blooming one and those fruit will ripen about May or so. But when the fruit, before it's ripe, is really firm and as it gets closer to ripening, the coiled flower stalk starts to relax, and the fruit starts to get a little bit soft. If you're collecting cyclamen seed, that's the time to collect it. Because, if you wait until the fruit splits open, often things like slugs and ants will carry the seed around. There's a little fatty coat coating on the outside of that seed that, you know an ant or another creature that carries away will eat, and that's the reward for the ant for taking the seed. Because otherwise, the seedlings come up right around the parent plant and if you have an ant or somebody dispersing the seed, then you get spread out [and] around. And they're rather easy to grow from seed. You would sow them as soon as you collect them or soon after, because some seeds tolerate being dry for a long time, but cyclamen seeds will germinate better if you sow it soon after you collect it, and it won't germinate until the following winter. You know, you collect it in May, sow it, and it’ll germinate that winter. And a really curious thing about cyclamen… and I need to go back one step.

...cyclamen are dicots so you would expect to see two seed leaves when it germinates but one of those seed leaves becomes the tuber.

Flowering plants generally fall into two groups: monocots and dicots. And of course, monocots have one seed leaf and dicots have two seed leaves. And cyclamen are dicots so you would expect to see two seed leaves when it germinates but one of those seed leaves becomes the tuber. A tuber is… in a general sense we might call them bulbs, but you know technically it's not a true bulb but it's another underground storage unit. So, if you think of this as the bulb, one of the seed leaves becomes this bulb and each year that bulb gets bigger and Cyclamen hederifolium can eventually become about this big. So that's a curious thing about this plant because when it germinates you don't see two seed leaves, but you only see one. And then if you have seedlings come up in the garden they transplant readily so if you end up with a little clutch of seedlings don't be reluctant to transplant them to new locations.

So, Cyclamen hederifolium will start blooming in late summer and bloom you know… probably its peak of bloom is in September and October, and it'll still have flowers after that it's sort of like a long slow build up to peak in September October and then will continue to bloom lightly for another month or so after that. They're worth growing for their flower display but I think some of these foliage types are really worth growing. They come up… the foliage comes up early fall and then is real pretty all through the winter. We'll see some examples out in the garden. Yes, you had a question?

Q: Do they get eaten by rabbits?

A: I've not known them to be eaten by rabbits. We recently have gotten skunks in the garden, and they haven't gone after the cyclamen, but I know in another garden, skunks sometimes root things up, dig things up. In a garden I used to work in that has a lot of cyclamen, that was a problem until they fenced the garden.

So, Cyclamen hederifolium is the best one to start with because it's very forgiving. They're always described as needing good drainage and I always think when somebody says “it needs good drainage” they think like, you know, exceptionally good drainage but really, if you can grow a hosta or most ferns, then the drainage is adequate. Like most plants that want good drainage, it really means avoiding a place where the water doesn't drain after a rain. You know there are plants that love wet sites like that but cyclamen aren't. Cyclamen hederifolium is dormant in the summertime so these are really excellent plants for shady gardens that are really dry in the summer or low areas in your garden that are really dry in the summer like [under] trees like a maple that have a real shallow root system. They don't mind being dry in the summer and then they come up in the fall and there will be adequate moisture and sunlight at that point through the winter months.

Cyclamen cilicium is another fall blooming species. The leaves eventually get about twice this size. This is a young plant it's a much smaller plant than hederifolium because hederifolium now, as I mentioned, eventually the tuber can be almost the size of a dinner plate and then the leaves come up and then the flower, the leaf stalks sort of sprawl out from the center. So, tuber might be this size, but the mass of foliage can be you know quite a bit bigger because they sort of sprawl out but cilicium is going to be a much smaller plant, little flowers up above the foliage. And there's another very similar species Cyclamen mirabile. Mirabile means “miraculous or wonderful” and it looks very much like this, but the petals have a little fringe on them. But there aren't any to see today because it's fall bloom and these are a little bit more difficult to grow but it provided to make sure they have good drainage and a bright shady spot they usually succeed.

Cyclamen graecum which means “from Greece” we'll see in the garden. It's also fall blooming a big sort of heart-shaped leaf and quite similar to the florist’s cyclamen in appearance but one that's fully hardy. An interesting thing about the different cyclamen is some of them will make roots from the top of the tuber and then they grow down. Some will make roots from the bottom. And Cyclamen graecum is unique in that it makes these permanent woody roots from the bottom of the tuber, so it needs a really well drained soil that has drainage down you know a good six inches or so because those long booty roots go down pretty far.

Cyclamen in the Garden

There are a number of examples of Cyclamen hederifolium in here. The thing I want to emphasize is Cyclamen hederifolium does not need super drainage like… this bed was created to have super drainage for these dry land plants that wouldn't succeed in our damp climate unless they had really good drainage, but they will tolerate it.  More often it's better in the shade garden. They will go dormant really quickly when the weather turns hot because they don't really like the full sun. But you know a really pretty one with ivy shaped leaves, a nice silver leafed one. There are a few other species here. Here's a really interesting hybrid between two cyclamen. The parents are Cyclamen hederifolium that we've seen lots of examples of, and the other parent is Cyclamen graecum. And this leaf is very typical of a Cyclamen graecum. See, it's not ivy shaped it's more like a heart shape. And that flower is coming off the plant and that flower is really odd to me… seems really odd to me for two reasons. Both of its parents are fall blooming, so I don't understand why it's blooming now, and both of the parents typically have pale pink flowers. Nowadays the Cyclamen hederifolium is available in several sort of brand-new colors and one of them is that rich purple so maybe it's Cyclamen hederifolium was that one. But that's not a typical color for either of those species. If we just take… I know, we'll go this way. There are plenty of examples of Cyclamen hederifolium in the garden.

Q: They don’t mind these rocks, it seems like, because they are just nestled in here.

A: Yeah, but my point is - they don't need that. They could just grow in your regular garden. You know, if you're growing things like hostas, or ferns, or camellias, or other things that just need like normal soil, Cyclamen hederifolium is easy. Some people have gardens that are irrigated, and they run the irrigation every Tuesday because it's Tuesday it's programmed to run every Tuesday. That's not the best kind of situation for cyclamen. They're used to dry summers. So, you know, they will tolerate it if you have to water the garden in August because it hasn’t rained for four weeks, that’s fine they'll tolerate that. But they don't want to be constantly wet. But you know, normal garden conditions, they'll be fine. When the Cyclamen hederifolium is established, they start to get bigger leaves and make bigger masses. Yeah, that one is so beautiful, and you know I would grow that even if it never bloomed because the foliage is so beautiful. This is cilicium and that's sort of… that's one plant, that's sort of full size.

Q: Do you sell that one?

A: Yes, yes that's the only one we have for sale other than hederifolium.

Q: What’s that?

A: This is cycle Cyclamen purpurascens which means “becoming purple”. Nearly all the cyclamen species are from Mediterranean climates where they're used to dry summers and moist winters, sort of like California. But purpurascens is native to the Alps, so it will grow through the winter but it's really more summer growing. In the Alps where there's very cold winters, it would be dormant in the winter but then grow through the mild but wet summers and blooms through the summer months into the fall. And this is a young plant but in time, you know an established purpurascens plant would make a clump of foliage about like that. And the flowers are more often a darker pink not a pale pink.

Cyclamen coum will start blooming in late December and bloom all winter

This is Cyclamen coum and this is the one that should be in full bloom now. Cyclamen coum is not necessarily the most elegant or beautiful flower but it's… if I could only grow one, I would grow one this one. Because, and you know we’re not talking about facts now, we're talking about personal opinion, but Cyclamen coum will start blooming in late December and bloom all winter. So, I love anything that's blooming through the winter months because I don't like winter. And C. coum is quite variable in foliage: some are solid green. This is probably the most common where you have sort of like the almost like leaf pattern on the leaf. And then you know in gardens people have also selected solid leaf forms. And the most common flower color is a darker version of that almost like a brilliant magenta. So, you know you see it from a great distance. Often, I have to think it's probably a color that the bees see too.

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