The common name, Sowbread, points to the fact that cyclamen are used as pig food in the South of France, Sicily and Italy but these pearls of horticulture have so much more to offer, especially for crowded city gardens. The lucky pigs in the Mediterranean are actually enjoying the plants’ tubers and I use that term wisely. The dry swollen dishes from which roots, leaves and flowers emerge are not corms as is often quoted. The storage organ of a cormous plant such as Crocosmia shrivels and dies after flowering leaving newly formed corms behind. A tuber keeps on growing year on year, which reminds me of a cyclamen under the olive tree at the Chelsea Physic Garden with a tuber the size of a dinner plate.
This clearly very happy individual is a good place to start. It is an example of the most compliant species for garden use, Cyclamen hederifolium, which thrives in that most challenging of habitats, dry shade. It will grow in a cavity at the base of a mature tree or in a narrow bed under a hedge, even a coniferous one. As summer fades and many plants are retiring, C. hederifolium sends up tiny ‘shuttlecock’ flowers with reflexed petals around a pentagonal mouth. These are typically pink but lovely pure white forms often arise in clumps of seedlings and they keep on coming into November. During this long flowering period the leaves begin to emerge too; green, marbled with grey they are reminiscent of a very superior ivy (Hedera) leaf as the specific name suggests.
By January, plants earn their keep from the infinitely variable foliage alone. Nestled among the leaves one can find the coiled up flower stems lying flat against the ground and holding the seed pods, the size of oak apples. The distinctive coils are behind the generic name Cyclamen, ‘kyklos’ being Greek for circle. Ants enjoy the sticky paste that covers the seed and help with dispersal. The gardener can assist by collecting and sowing ripe seed in pots on the surface of some gritty compost. Leave the pots outside, as the cold will help break the seed dormancy - a process known as stratification.
If starting from scratch, it is worth buying plants in flower at this time of year to select an appealing flower shade and leaf marking. If you want a long-lived plant be sure to buy C. hederifolium, often marketed as ‘wild cyclamen’, rather than a florist’s hybrid derived from C. persicum. The latter are not hardy though with their showy blooms they have their place as a cheery houseplant or autumn bedding for pots in sheltered spots.
Cyclamen enjoy good drainage. When growing in pots add plenty of grit to the compost. Despite their forgiving nature if you plant in that unpromising spot by the dustbins, where even the weeds look straggly, it is worth enriching the soil with some leaf mould or other humus. Small ferns such as Adiantum aleuticum or Blechnum penna-marina make good partners for cyclamen. Snowdrops, crocuses and scillas planted among cyclamen are all set off well by the borrowed foliage in early spring.
If you are taken with C. hederifolium then there is Cyclamen coum to take over the flowering in late winter and Cyclamen repandum will finish the relay in spring. So whether in that dry corner of the garden or a display of pots make space for these delightful members of the Primula family.
Cricklade named Champion of Champion in 2011 Britain in Bloom Awards
Cricklade, in Wiltshire, was named ‘Champion of Champions’ in the Royal Horticultural Society 2011 Britain in Bloom Awards. The judges visited the 76 finalists, selected from more than 1000, in August, and assessed against three key criteria:
All in all, a record 20 Gold medals were awarded across the country.