Sandy’s Garden ... Cyclical Cyclamen

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

We don’t have a poinsettia.

You know, a favourite pot plant for the festive period, lingering long after all the other Christmas decorations have been taken down and packed away ‘for next year’, although there is little doubt that some of them will never see the light of day again. No, instead of a poinsettia we chose to feature a couple of our cyclamen plants, one with beautiful, rich red flowers with white tips, and the other a real sweetie pink. So we are not wondering whether to give the poinsettia free bed and board any longer or whether the time has come to say goodbye for, although it is possible to over-summer a poinsettia and have it feature again in the festive decorations, it really isn’t worth the time and the effort in my opinion; and I know that better gardeners than I share my view.

But our cyclamen are extremely undemanding in their summer requirements – and in their winter requirements for that matter. Now that their “large, long-stemmed flowers with swept back petals rising above heart-shaped silver-patterned leaves” have passed … and this splendid description of the flowers is taken from Dr. D.G. Hessayon’s book The Bulb Expert … we have to do no more than place their pots on their sides and keep them dry until the middle of the summer. It really couldn’t be any easier than that. Cyclamen … as, gentle reader, you may have gathered from the title of Dr. Hessayon’s book … are bulbs or, to be wholly accurate, tubers, for the Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘bulb’ as ‘a rounded underground storage organ present in some plants, notably those of the lily family, consisting of a short stem surrounded by fleshy scale leaves or leaf bases, lying dormant over winter’ while a tuber is defined by the same authority as ‘a much thickened underground part of a stem or rhizome, e.g. in the potato, serving as a food reserve and bearing buds from which new plants arise,’ which is what a cyclamen tuber does.

And these words reveal the cyclamen’s secret, although Cyclamen persicum … to use the pukka botanical name for the plants we grow and which are available from every garden centre … prefers to lie dormant over the spring and early summer and to waken up when the best of the summer has passed. Cyclamen persicum … ‘cyclamen’ is the Greek name for the plant and ‘persicum’ means ‘from Persia’, the country which is nowadays called Iran … was introduced into the British Isles at the beginning of the seventeenth century as a house plant, initially kept for much of the year in the heated greenhouses of the rich and brought into the’ big house’ for the festive season. A Greek scholar would call it ‘kooklamen’ rather than ‘siklamen’, but it is always known in the horticultural world by the latter pronunciation. It does have what can only be called an uncommon name rather than a common name now, for the moniker ‘sowbread’ seems to have fallen into the limbo of forgotten things.

And why did I title this piece ‘cyclical cyclamen’? Well, quoting again from the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘cyclical’ means ‘occurring in cycles; recurrent’, which is exactly what cyclamen does. Come the late summer, repot dormant cyclamen in fresh compost, leaving only the very top of the tuber visible above the surface; keep the pot in a cool spot indoors away from direct sunlight with the compost kept slightly moist … never wet … until the flower shoots appear; and hey presto! The cyclamen will produce its lovely flower to add to the Christmas decorations; and it will do this for years, all for the minimum of attention.

One word of caution; wait until the autumn before buying a new Cyclamen persicum from your local florist or garden centre – don’t buy one now. But come November.