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Cyclamen
by Betty Mackey
January 16, 2011

Nothing against poinsettias, but for winter elegance, give me fragrant florist’s cyclamen. Lusciously flowering in fruity shades of pink, cherry red, purple, lavender, and white, each plant is like a potted bouquet with its flowers held above a handsome rosette of large, heart-shaped leaves. Green and waxy, the leaves may be dappled with concentric tracings of silver. The flower petals, back-flung in an energetic way and sometimes bi-colored, are sometimes described as propeller shaped. Winter is this indoor plant’s time to shine.

When shopping for cyclamen you’ll be surprised at the variations—it is rare to find two exactly alike. Florist plants of Cyclamen persicum have all been grown from seed because it is so tricky to divide the solid round tubers. There are small, medium, and large indoor types ranging from about five inches tall to a foot or more, and all of them are attractive. I think the single flowers look more graceful than the doubles. You’ll enjoy searching for the best specimens in your favorite colors.

When shopping, examine the leaves and flower buds of the plant. They should not be wilted or discolored with yellowed or browned edges. Select plants with many flower buds emerging and fewer blooming or spent flowers. You should expect to see the brown tuber a little above the soil line in the pot, but the leaves should be full and plentiful. Each corm comes from the grower ready to produce quite a number of flowers. When it’s finished, that’s all for the season.

Sometimes we are disappointed with this alluring plant after purchase. It is from the mountains of Greece, Turkey and nearby regions and requires conditions very unlike those for the warmth-loving African violet. Temperatures in the seventies may be comfortable for us but will bring an early end to cyclamen. Overheating causes drooping yellow foliage and it’s not pretty.

Its home habitat is so harsh and dry that cyclamen stays dormant in summer and blooms during the cold but not icy winter. It forms a solid round tuber that lives and grows for years, sometimes wedging itself into a crack between the rocks. It craves chilly nights and sunny days, and when the weather cools off and the winter rains appear, the leaves and flowers sprout from the tuber very quickly.

If you want your greenhouse-grown plants to bloom happily for you, put them in an unheated sun porch or non-thermal window or even the garage for the night. 50 to 60 degrees F is ideal at night. Bring them back inside for the day, when 68 degrees is ideal. If you can’t provide cool nights, just accept that the plant will have a shorter life span and enjoy it while it lasts. It prefers high humidity while in flower. Keep it away from drafts and hot, dry airflows. Indirect but bright light is best indoors.

Feed and water cyclamen regularly during the leafy blooming season, while it is actively growing. Use a blossom booster (low nitrogen) type of fertilizer, every other week for liquids, or timed release pellets just once for the whole season. Try not to water the center of the tuber directly for that might cause rot. Water well but let the soil dry out slightly between waterings, not letting it get so dry that the plant wilts.

For decor, plants can be grouped with greenery and candles on a mantelpiece or combined in baskets or cachepots with one another for tabletop charm. Add some greenery to hide the pots.

The baskets let you carry the arrangements to cooler quarters each night. Keep the plants well groomed.

It is only natural for individual flowers to wilt and fade, so remove them by pulling the stem away from the tuber completely. This makes room to show off the newly opened flowers and emerging buds. If a couple of leaves start to turn yellow, pull them off too. This greatly improves the appearance of the plants, which are not necessarily having a problem.

Even with great care, cyclamen starts to go dormant as part of the annual cycle. By February or March, taper off and stop watering to let the tuber dry out. Keep the pot nearly dry in a warm, bright place. Remove the yellowed leaves. If all goes well, next fall the bare plant will signal a new season by sprouting flowers. Start watering and fertilizing again.

Although it’s rare for the plant to look as beautiful as before, maybe you’ll enjoy your cyclamen for many holiday seasons. If not, your florist or farmer’s market stands ready with a fresh new crop.

There are many Cyclamen species (SICK-la-men), and some are hardy outdoors. Wild types occur from southeastern France through the mid-East. Cyclamen hederifolium is probably the best species for our climate. It is easy in dry shade if you can protect it from rodents (cats may be the answer). For more information, turn to the Cyclamen Society ( www.cyclamen.org/hederif.htm ). Pennsylvania author/lecturer Jon Lonsdale grows and sells hardy cyclamen and provides information on his website, www.edgewoodgardens.net/  .

Betty Mackey is a garden writer and publisher. Her independent press, B. B. Mackey Books, is found at www.mackeybooks.com

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