A Plant That Takes the Summer Off

The genus Cyclamen first entered my consciousness during a visit to Copenhagen. They were for sale on the street outside of florists and neighborhood food stores. I seemed never to be quite out of sight of a constellation of plunging pink or white flowers suspended above a tumble of sturdy variegated leaves. I’m pretty sure it was November 1993.

Cyclamen persicum

The so-called “florist’s cyclamen” is descended from Cyclamen persicum. There are about 20 species in the genus. C. persicum is found in Turkey south through Syria and Lebanon into Israel and Jordan. It also occurs on the islands of Crete, Rhodes and Karpathos and in Tunisia and Algeria. Given this range it is not surprising that it is not particularly frost tolerant.

According to the Cyclamen Society Web site, C. persicum generally flowers between December and May, but a single population found near Jericho (in the occupied West Bank) flowers in the fall. Genetic material from this population has been used to produce many of the cultivated varieties sold by florists. These were apparently the plants that I saw for sale in early November in Copenhagen.

The most frost tolerant species of cyclamen is C. hederifolium, which can be grown outdoors to Zone 5a. Species other than persicum are not usually found at your average nursery and might have to be ordered. Cyclamen grow from a tuber and prefer to be planted under large trees; their native habitat is usually forested or scrubby. The tuber should be planted just below the surface.

Many of the cyclamens can be kept inside in a pot year after year. The leaves generally appear in the fall and the plant flowers in the spring, but as summer approaches the foliage and blossoms wither and die back. Cyclamens aestivate, which is a period dormancy in response to heat and dryness, a characteristic Mediterranean summers.

If you are keeping the plant in a pot, when the vegetation dies back put the pot in a poorly lit, cool, dry place (outdoors) and place it on its side so that no water gets into the soil. If the soil remains damp, then the tuber will rot. The leaves will begin to appear around September, at which point resume watering and feeding the plant, and move it indoors to a location with bright indirect light. (Start watering it in October if no leaves have appeared.)

Green and gray foliage

Through the winter the foliage will grow best if the plant is not exposed to temperatures above 70 degrees F. Even if cyclamens never flowered their foliage might supply adequate beauty. The leaves are dark green with striking patterns of gray, varying according to the species.

True to their Mediterranean origins, cyclamens like to be watered heavily and then allowed to nearly dry out before being watered again. C. persicum and several other species flower in the spring, but many other species (generally the ones adapted to cooler weather) flower in the fall. C. africanum flowers before the leaves appear after aestivation. Cyclamen fanciers like to say that a member of the genus flowers during every month of the year.

C. purpurascens showing "circle form"

The flower colors range through shades of pink to snow white, but they are often dappled with darker patterns. They are five-petaled and reflexive, which means that although the stamens and pistil point toward the ground on an arched stem, the petals curve backwards 180 degrees to point skyward. The part of the corolla where this reversal of direction takes place forms a circle around the sexual organs of the flower, which may be the source of the genus name: kyklamenos means “circle form” in Greek.

While I was in Copenhagen that autumn, I was staying with my friend and his wife in a studio apartment. After a few days it was getting a bit crowded in there and, sensing that the married couple needed some privacy, I went out for a walk around the city. On my way home in the evening, I stopped at a florist and bought a cyclamen (with white flowers, if I remember correctly) and brought back to the apartment. It was the right thing to do.

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One Response to A Plant That Takes the Summer Off

  1. SoundEagle says:

    How lovely they are! I used to have a perfect, strong and gorgeous cyclamen, but it suddenly perished in an extreme two-day heatwave reaching 42 degree Celsius. Heartbroken, I have never been able to grow another since.

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