Sandy’s Garden ... Cyclamen

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My wife and I had the pleasure of entertaining a genuinely delightful elderly gentleman and his wife to lunch some weeks ago.

It has to be lunch nowadays, for age is taking its inevitable toll and driving after darkness has fallen is no longer attractive. Now, when even I say that Peter is elderly, readers will understand that Peter is, indeed, ‘a good age’ to be discreet; and Peter brought a gift with him, a gorgeous cyclamen which he handed over with the knowledgeable comment, “There are few better plants for this time of year.”

How true these words are. And, to turn the clock back a few years to the time when one looked no further than Dr. D. G. Hessayon’s splendid series of horticultural books in ‘The Expert’ series for first-class information on almost every plant that a British gardener was ever likely to encounter, one finds these words in the 1993 reprint of ‘The House Plant Expert,’ which was first published in 1960. “Cyclamen is one of the most popular of all winter-flowering pot plants and its charm is obvious. It has compact growth, beautiful swept-back flowers on long stalks and decorative foliage which is patterned in silver and green. The blooms are in bright colours or pastel shades, large and eye-catching or small and perfumed.”

Dr. Hessayon goes on to describe how best to care for the plant, advising that it does best if the compost is kept always moist (not wet) and is placed in a position where it enjoys bright light but not direct sunlight and a temperature of between 10ºC and 15ºC, say 50°F and 60°F, so the hall is a good place for it. But most readers will be familiar with cyclamen and with its needs, although some of the beliefs associated with this plant are less well-known.

In 1559, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, a doctor and naturalist who was born in Siena and who became the most famous physician of his time, published a translation of medicinal discourses by the Greek herbalist Dioscorides, who wrote a five-volume book in his native Greek in the first century AD, a book that was still in widespread use 1 500 years later. It is fascinating to look at some of the medicinal powers attributed to cyclamen, which include these examples. “It is said that pregnant women will abort if they walk over it: but if one wears it on herself, it speeds up delivery; it can be drunk to counteract any kind of poison, but especially the sea air; as an ointment, it is good against serpent’s bite; applied with honey to the eyes, it is good for cataracts and eye weakness; the root purges and cleanses the skin; it cures and prevents blemishes and boils; taken alone or with honey, it heals wounds; and taken with wine, it makes one drunk.”

I particularly like that last attribute – “Taken with wine, it makes one drunk.” Astonishing! But then, in the nineteenth century language of flowers, cyclamen was said to be a sign of resignation and of parting, although another version of the supposed language of flowers makes cyclamen the sign of modesty and shyness. The plant was believed by some of our ancestors to be a favourite of Hecate, one of the goddesses worshipped by witches as the mother goddess of dark, chthonic … underworld … places and of witchcraft. Folklore says cyclamen is the flower of opposites and symbolised life and death. But I think of cyclamen as one of the most beautiful of all winter-flowering pot plants; and I am delighted that Peter brought such a lovely one for us to enjoy. As ever, I offer no endorsement whatsoever of the claims made for this attractive plant which now decorates our home: but I do most willingly endorse Peter’s words, “There are few better plants for this time of year.” And I do commend it to you as a lovely pot plant.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society