Every year I anticipate the arrival of cyclamen in the local landscape centers. The first time I saw these plants, I fell in love with their unique upswept flowers (white, pink, lavender and red) and big heart-shaped leaves. Cyclamen are native to Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, the region of lands that surround the Mediterranean Sea where the climates offer mild to cool rainy winters and warm to hot dry summers. This member of the primrose family was first mentioned by Plato back in the 4th century B.C., finally making its way into European gardens in the 1600s. The genus contains 23 species. Each of these species have their own area of distribution although some overlap. Interestingly, they do not naturally hybridize and botanists continue to research the reasons behind this fact. Some cyclamen plants have been known to grow in the same perfect location for over 100 years. But don’t expect that in our climate!
The Latin name Cyclamen comes from word “kuklos” or circle. A look at the flattened round tuber and the plant’s circular growing habit explains the genus name. One species, Cyclamen persicum, has its species name adapted from where it was originally found in Persia, known today as Iran. This wild species is the most common cyclamen found in the retail market. It is considered the florist cyclamen because it is sold by florists as well as home improvement centers. This cyclamen is treated as an annual plant (summer dormancy having been bred out of it) and is a welcome addition indoors as a seasonal holiday plant. It’s one of my favorite holiday gifts. It brings a delightful splash of color to the dreary days of winter. The plant is often sold in foil-wrapped containers during the holiday season. This foil prevents water from draining out of the container and the plant’s tuber will rot in the wet soil, causing death. Be sure that you either remove the foil entirely or at least when watering to ensure excess water drains out of the pot. Also, for a longer indoor life, try to find a cooler room for your plant as temperatures above 68° F will eventually cause leaves to turn yellow and drop. Florist cyclamen can also be placed outdoors in protected areas (screened or open porch area) and brought back indoors when freezing temperatures threaten. A trick I use is to plant three in a larger pot on the front porch and pluck them out to bring inside when necessary to avoid winter cold damage.
When purchasing a cyclamen to be grown outdoors, head to a local nursery or garden center because they usually carry hardy cyclamen. Cyclamen coum (hardy to Zone 6) and Cyclamen hederifolium (ivy-leafed, hardy to Zone 5) are the most commonly grown garden species. Although most of the breeding of cyclamen has been with C. persicum, breeders are beginning to focus on creating more winter-hardy hybrids that will offer some of the desired traits of the frost-sensitive species. Always check the plant label to know what you are purchasing. Choosing the correct plant ensures that it will perform beautifully outdoors in colder weather. Unlike the florist cyclamen, hardier species are generally perennials that are smaller in size and bloom in the fall and late winter. The green and silver patterned heart-shaped to ivy-shaped leaves add to the unusual and intricate flower display. Seldom do other plants rival a planting of cyclamen in bloom in late winter. Plant in a lightly shaded part of the yard where the soil is rich and moist but not wet. I like to tuck plants in with a pine straw mulch.
Hardy cyclamen grow through the winter months, melting away into dormancy during the hot months and reemerging, starting with the leaves, in the late fall. However, I have not had any success in plants coming back the following year in our coastal climate. Our landscape has always had an irrigation system. Cyclamen are very sensitive to excess moisture, particularly in the summer months when tubers are dormant under the ground. Most likely the tubers rotted. Your garden may have a location that would offer the dryness needed!
In my research, I have discovered this plant to have both spiritual symbolism and legendary stories associated with it, as described by Maddie Forbes in her June 2021 article “Cyclamen Flower: Meaning, Symbolism and Colors.” According to Forbes, cyclamen can symbolize the empathetic, devoted and sincere heart. This sentiment led to plantings beside old Islamic and Christian monasteries and churchyards in the countries around the Mediterranean. In Japan, the cyclamen is the holy flower of love. In one Jewish legend, King Solomon was searching for the perfect design for his royal crown. After searching far and wide, his servants returned to Jerusalem empty-handed and downcast until they noticed the small flowers of the cyclamen under the shade of a rock. The king loved the humble bent of the flower, and the crown was made with royal jewels forming the shape of the flower. When King Solomon died, it is said that the cyclamen grieved the loss of the wise king and after Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylon, the flowers bent even further down with grief. In Christianity, the bending flower represents modesty and humility, two characteristics attributed to the Virgin Mary. The heart-shaped leaves represent her broken heart over the death of her son, Jesus. Other researched articles verify this information, all new to me!
There have been other uses for cyclamen as well. After World War I, the Bedouins of Mandate Palestine would collect and grate the tubers. Lime would be mixed in to produce a substance that, when sprinkled over the surface of a body of water, would stun fish causing them to rise to the surface. Shepherds would use the tubers to clean oily stains from their garments. The tubers contained saponin that would foam up when rubbed on the fabric, trapping the oily stains which then would be rinsed away. The roots have also been used for nervous emotional states and indigestion, but this use is not recommended in today’s medical society.