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Hardy autumn-flowering Cyclamen

November 27, 2021
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To many the word ‘cyclamen’ conjures up a picture of attractive houseplants with large flowers that are produced in their millions for home decoration every autumn. These highly bred and selected florists flowers have their place. But there are a number of hardy and easy autumn-flowering cyclamen species you can grow in your garden

Many of you will already have Cyclamen hederifolium (sometimes still found in catalogues as C. neapolitanum). This is one of the best of all autumn flowering plants. The other species are much less frequently seen, even in the gardens of keen growers. Which is a pity, for some are almost equally easy and delightful. But they are less often found in general bulb catalogues, let alone garden centres. You must source them from specialist suppliers, or grow them from seed.

hardy autumn-flowering cyclamen

Cyclamen hederifolium 'Album'

Cyclamen tubers

The underground storage organs of cyclamen, which enable them potentially to persist for many years in the garden, are tubers. They, unlike bulbs and corms are modified swollen roots (think of a potato). But as far as the gardener is concerned they behave much the same as bulbs. All storage organs are resistant to desiccation, allowing them to remain dormant for long periods. It is in this state, as dormant tubers, that cyclamen (particularly Cyclamen hederifolium) are most often offered for sale. In some cases very large tubers (>10 cm diameter) are available. These should be avoided as they are most likely to have been dug up illegally in the wild. They are in any case difficult and slow to establish. Some nurseries offer plants in growth, and though more expensive they are much to be preferred.

cyclamen hederifolium tuber

cyclamen hederifolium tuber

Species worth trying

Cyclamen hederifolium

This stalwart will grow and increase almost anywhere in the garden, even in the dry ‘rooty’ conditions beneath trees. If you are able to provide pockets of more fertile soil, so much the better, but it is not essential. In any case, in such situations the tree roots will soon grow back into the ‘improved’ soil. My approach is to add a layer of garden compost/leafmould just as the tubers begin to make new growth in late summer/early autumn.

hardy autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium

Cyclamen hederifolium naturalised on grassy banks at Aberconwy Nursery in North Wales

Cyclamen cilicium

Cyclamen cilicium is probably as hardy as C. hederifolium, which is not surprising as it is a montane species, and equally long-lived. But it is more delicate in appearance, smaller in all its parts, and not spreading as freely. And it is less robust in coping with difficult, dry soil conditions. As a result I grow it in areas where I can afford it a little more attention, a favourite spot being the top of a semi-shaded raised bed. It flowers at about the same time as C. hederifolium but carries on into early November here in Wales. Cyclamen cilicium is also excellent in a trough or as a pot plant grown under glass. As well as the ‘standard’ pink there are forms with darker flowers, as well as some lovely albinos.

hardy cyclamen autumn flowering

Cyclamen cilicium

Cyclamen mirabile and Cyclamen intaminatum

These two species, like C. cilicium, originate from Turkey, but each occupies subtly different habitats in the wild. This affects their suitability for open ground cultivation in British gardens, or at least in the north and west of the UK. I have grown all three in the open ground but only really succeeded with C. cilicium. But the other two are excellent with some protection from excessive summer rain during their dormant periods. An alternative is to grow them in a trough or other container which can either be moved under cover, or protected with a hood. Winter rain alone is not usually a problem in my experience, but prolonged freezing temperatures when the ground is wet are.

Cyclamen mirabile

Cyclamen mirabile flowers are (to me at least) indistinguishable from those of C. cilicium, and often the foliage is similar. But newly emerging leaves of the former are sometimes suffused with a lovely, distinct pink flush that raises them to a new level of interest and beauty. This character has been seized upon and developed by cyclamen enthusiasts and breeders. So much so that it is now possible to obtain in the trade named forms that have permanent dark pink zonation. In the most extreme forms this is very clearly delimited with an inner Christmas tree shape framed in a glowing pink surround.

Hardy autumn-flowering Cyclamen mirabile

Cyclamen mirabile leaf selections grown outdoors in Cheshire

Cyclamen intaminatum

The foliage of C. intaminatum is, by comparison, uninteresting, being plain green lightly marbled with a greyer colouration. However the flowers are among my favourites, elegant, dart-shaped pale pink or white down-turned cones. It has a certain refinement that is difficult to describe but easy to appreciate when you see it.

A bonus of all three of these miniature Turkish species, which you may miss, is that they are sweetly scented. You really need a warm day with no wind to appreciate their differing perfumes, not often to be had here in North Wales!

Planting

If you can get plants in growth it is best to plant them immediately. I would soak dry tubers until they plump up. Then plant them temporarily in boxes of good compost in a cool but well lit place until they start to produce strong root growth. You can then plant them in their permanent positions. Make sure to improve the soil with leafmould or similar if necessary. It should be well drained but with enough ‘body’ and nutrients to support the growth and storage demands of the tubers. Plant them with their upper surfaces at or just below soil level. They will not stand deep planting and often work themselves to the surface over the years.

cyclamen cilicium flowering in autumn at Pershore

Cyclamen cilicium on the AGS rock garden at Pershore

Propagation

Cyclamen do not increase naturally by division and the production of offsets, as most storage organs do. And division of tubers is not generally a sensible way of ensuring increase.

It is much better to rely on seed, which is usually produced in copious amounts. If the plant is in leaf when the seed is ripe you may have to search for it. This is because in most species the seed capsules are borne on stalks which coil like springs, drawing them down into the crowns of the plants. When ripe, the capsule splits at the apex to reveal the seeds inside. In most cases they are encased in a sweet, sticky gel. This makes them particularly attractive to ants, other insects, and probably small rodents. Hence they are carried off for food, ensuring their dispersal away from the parent. Not all are eaten, those that are not, have the chance to increase the population.

Cyclamen hederifolium seeds and seed pods, John Lonsdale

Cyclamen hederifolium seeds and seed pods, credit John Lonsdale

Seed sowing

Seeds are best sown fresh and will generally germinate the following spring. However, if only dried seed is available, it is important to re-wet it before sowing. The best way is to soak overnight in warm water with a few drops of washing up liquid added. This reduces the surface tension allowing water to be taken up more easily. Sow them immediately after.

First year seedlings are tiny and are best left in their seed pans for at least another year. Remember to keep them just moist as the pea-sized (or less) tubers easily dry out beyond recall. Potted on in their second year, and kept fed and watered they should flower a year or two later. When growing them on (particularly C. hederifolium) look out for particularly good leaf forms as the leaves last for many months in good condition.

Cyclamen hederifolium leaf variations

Cyclamen hederifolium leaf variations

Pests and diseases

Hardy cyclamen are generally very healthy plants little troubled by pests and diseases. If drainage or air movement are inadequate there is a risk of the tubers rotting. Aphids can be a problem but mostly with plants grown under glass. Slugs and snails sometimes attack tubers and leaves if given the chance, eating out the crowns with their precious buds.

More insidious because they are harder to spot are underground feeders, including keel slugs and the larvae of weevils. The species chiefly concerned are Vine weevil and Clay-coloured weevils. If the leaves start to wilt and the plants are not short of water, suspect weevil grubs. If you dig the tubers up you will likely find the larvae eating out the tuber from beneath.

Vine weevil larva

Vine weevil larva

John Good

John Good

Our author is a retired research forest ecologist and Emeritus Professor of Environmental Forestry at Bangor University. Throughout his life, John has been interested in all aspects of the observation and cultivation of plants. Alpines and woodlanders were always of particular appeal. He has called North Wales his home for more than 40 years. John and his wife, Pam, have developed and enjoyed their current hillside garden overlooking the sea for the last 27 years.

He joined the AGS over five decades ago. During this time John has served as AGS Director of Publications, Assistant Editor of our journal and as judge at our shows. After years of serving on the RHS Joint Rock Garden Plant Committee, he is now a friend.

John has travelled and lectured widely on alpines and written many articles and several books on the subject. He has also always been heavily involved in his local North Wales Group.

Cyclamen - a concise guide Product Chapter 1.1 - What are Cyclamen Chapter 1.2 - Before we get started Chapter 2 - Cyclamen at home Chapter 3 - Cyclamen in the greenhouse or co...
Martyn Denney
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