I found these weird springy coils in mid-March. Now I know what they were: the flower stems to my Cyclamen hederifolium (also known as C. neapolitanum, also known as ivy-leaved cyclamen and sowbread, maybe because they seed themselves so nicely).
The coily things looked like they were something cyclamen when I saw them in spring, but I couldn’t figure out what part. The leaves were just coming out then, and I thought they might be more emerging foliage, but no. It turns out that, at least for this variety, cyclamen flower stems come out when the foliage does, even though the flowers don’t emerge until fall.
Cyclamen are corms, not true bulbs. But these premature flower stems act much like the inside of true bulbs, where the flowers form fully the year (or at least several months) before they bloom. (This is why it’s so important to keep watering and feeding your bulb foliage until the end: it’s making next years’ flowers. And never cut it down, at least not if you expect more flowers out of them.)
This is also the first time I’ve had serious evidence that cyclamen corms really do get bigger and give more flowers over the years. I learned this from reading Nancy Goodwin, who specializes in raising cyclamen at her nursery in North Carolina. Last year, I had several scattered flowers from the same plant, but nothing like this flush of display. And I know from past experience that it will keep flowering for at least another couple of months.
Goodwin says her C. hederifolium can start flowering in May, and go all the way to October. She thinks flowering is triggered by cool nights after a period of warmth. Mine have never bloomed that early, but they do go long: they start around September and always go through December, and sometimes as late as January or February, depending on the weather.
Besides the florist’s hybrids, there are several species of cyclamen: a good collection can flower throughout the year. The varieties that are easiest to get tend to be fall and winter bloomers. I originally ordered three species, but Cyclamen hederifolium was the only one that succeeded. Goodwin says that cyclamen corms don’t travel or store well, and many are sold too dry to sprout; she recommends trying them from seed, or buying them from nursery specialists such as herself, who know how to give corms the right treatment. We both recommend buying corms that are nursery-grown, not collected from the wild. Many wild-collected bulbs are gathered wholesale and none too carefully, which means that entire stands can be wiped out for no good purpose: the collected plants don’t get the right care, and they die before reproducing. If you are fond of a plant, it doesn’t make any sense to wipe it out in its native environment-especially when there are plenty of sources for nursery-grown bulbs and corms.
Once the corm is happily settled in, cyclamen are one of my favorite kinds of plants: easy. They need some shade, and they need fairly fluffy soil with good drainage, but they don’t care about soil pH. Goodwin recommends an 8-8-8 fertilizer, but I give my cyclamen what everything else in the pot gets, and it seems to be happy with that. The main thing is not to overwater. Their handsome silver-and green foliage makes a pleasing groundcover; the flowers are a bonus.
I really must move this plant so I can get a close-up view when it blooms. When summer plants are starting to look a little weedy (at least in my garden), it’s great to see the chrysanthemums, cosmos, and dahlias looking fresh and happy. (My dahlias are still struggling to get to the flowering point, but never mind. Other dahlias are happy and flourishing. Someday, mine will be, too.) I can now add cyclamen to this select group of plants that give their all in the fall.
McClure and Zimmerman catalogue, spring 2008
Nancy Goodwin, “Cyclamen for Garden Use”, Gardener’s World of Bulbs, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record, 1991. The BBG series are written by various experts in their field and are a great resource for any gardener.