Cyclamen hederifolium in bloom
Plant spotlights

Cyclamen hederifolium

The genus cyclamen has long fascinated me…perhaps for the unusual, almost magical looking flowers as well as the enchanting silver-patterned leaves. I first encountered cyclamen in the flesh in the early 1970s when garden shopping at the old Western Boulevard K-Mart. There they were…forced for the Christmas holidays…the intricately netted veined leaves, topped with stalks of bright pink pendant flowers that rose just above the foliage. They drew me in because they looked nothing like the petunias, begonias and impatiens I usually saw for sale….I was hooked.

It only took a matter of weeks, however, for me to send my first Cyclamen to the horticultural promised land. Undeterred, however, I returned to the store for a second attempt. By then, the holidays had passed and the bedraggled leftover plants had made it to the blue light special table, so I gathered more for my next attempt. Some of the Cyclamen went into my home greenhouse, while others were plunged into the ground outdoors. Once again, they all soon died.  Doing more reading, I discovered the plants I purchased were hybrids of the non-hardy Cyclamen persicum…bred to be short-lived houseplants that were grown in specialized cool temperature greenhouses,  with no chance of hardiness outdoors. Sadly,  I chalked cyclamen up to one of those plants I’d never be able to grow, and moved on to other plants.
It was only a couple of years later, on a visit to one of the top local area horticulturists, Rachel Dunham of Cary, that I again encountered Cyclamen. This time, I was walking around Mrs. Dunham’s well-known Kildaire Farm Road garden as she pointed out interesting plants and dug plants to share, when I noticed what appeared to be cyclamen leaves in her lawn. Thoughts raced through my mind…that can’t be Cyclamen….what could it be….and finally, would she share? Mrs. Dunham informed me that indeed, these were cyclamen, but instead of being tender florists cyclamen, these were a winter hardy species, Cyclamen hederifolium that had naturalized in her lawn. Incredulous at my good fortune, I stooped down with trowel in hand and began extracting the small underground corms to take home.   
My luck with Cyclamen wasn’t nearly as good as Mrs. Dunham’s…obviously a large difference in knowledge base and gardening skills. But, thanks to persistence over the years, I finally figured out what it took to keep cyclamen alive in our region…keeping them dry in the summer. Nearly four decades later, in 2010, I was fortunate to participate in a botanizing expedition to Crete, where I saw my friends in their native Mediterranean climate. Here, Cyclamen hederifolium grows in open grassy hillsides among the giant boulders with ancient corms nearly a century old approaching dinner plate size. In Crete, however, rain is a scare commodity, occurring from fall through spring and at about half the rate of the triangle region of NC.
Because of the rainfall patterns in their native haunts, cyclamen have adjusted their growth cycle to coincide with moisture availability. In our area, Cyclamen hederifolium begins to flower in late summer/early fall and continues with a progression of new flowers, each lasting several weeks, until Christmas. The summer dormant foliage also emerges around early November while the flowers are still going, and remains until mid-spring, at which time it goes dormant until fall.
Because our rainiest months are July and August, it is critical to keep cyclamen dry in the summer months while they’re dormant. So think about those garden spots that stay particularly dry in summer, and that’s where you want to plant your cyclamen. I have the best luck planting Cyclamen hederifolium at the base of trees or shrubs where little else will thrive. A deciduous overstory is best, so that some light can reach the leaves while they’re growing during the winter.
As each flower fades, the flowering stem retracts the old flower though a clever spiral coiling mechanism. The coil pulls the developing seed back to the ground-level corm, where it holds on tight until the seed is ripe. The ripe seeds are then cleverly coated with a sugary substance known as elaiosome, which is enticing to ants and wasps, who then unknowingly assist with seed dispersal.
Over the last 50+ years, the popularity and incredible demand for Cyclamen hederifolium has led to unscrupulous collectors gathering them from the wild for worldwide import. Thankfully, the poor survivability of wild collected corms, combined with the implementation of new laws has greatly curtailed this practice, and now most Cyclamen hederifolium is grown in nurseries from seed. Fresh seed can be harvested in April and sown immediately. We can generally flower cyclamen from seed in 12 months. I cannot imagine gardening without Cyclamen hederifolium in my garden, since it’s so good providing color at a time when many other plants are sulking in the garden. I hope they charm you as much as they did me.

– Tony Avent

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