Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cyclamen surprise

Cyclamen coum

There are plenty of plants that have lots of variety, with multicoloured forms and a variety of different plant shapes, but sometimes it is the singularly unchanging plants that capture out attention.  At this time of the year it is the humble cyclamen that grabs me, despite the inescapable fact that all cyclamen species follow the same basic shape, and they are really only available in white and pink, with a little variety thrown in with modern hybrids – purple and other shades that are not found in the wild being added.
And at that point I suppose we had better start making a distinction.  In most gardeners’ minds there is only one type of cyclamen, or perhaps two at most, and they are the florists’ cyclamen, early winter flowering plants that are very popular around Mothers’ Day.  In fact, when we owned the bedding plant nursery we grew these plants by the thousand, both traditional large-flowered forms, and the more recent miniature varieties.
In the wild there are about twenty species of cyclamen, although you would probably have to be a botanist to differentiate between them.  Just one species, C. persicum, has provided the basis of the florists’ cyclamen, but in the hundreds of years of selective breeding within this species, a wide range of forms has been selected, and the cyclamen now represents great value as a winter pot plant, providing many months of colour for a relatively cheap price.  For a price of about $10 you can have flowers in the house for months on end.
There are just a few tips to growing these plants as potted plants.  The first is that they need good drainage, but at the same time they like moist soil, so it is important to make sure they are in moisture retentive soil but not sitting in a saucer filled to the brim with water. When watering, make sure you water the soil and not the corm, and also ensure you let the water free drain. It also pays to water early in the day for two reasons; firstly, to allow the water to soak through the plant, and secondly, to let the corm dry out again before the evening.  If these steps are not followed the plants are a little prone to mildew.
When growing potted plants inside it also pays to be a bit canny about light levels as, cyclamen do best in bright indirect or curtain filtered sunlight – if they are exposed to direct, hot sunlight they will probably develop burns on their leaves.

Like most potted plants, it pays to give the pots a little feed every now and then especially if you are looking to retain them for more than one season.  The easiest thing to do is to apply a liquid fertiliser on a regular basis – perhaps once a fortnight. Remember to put this on in the early part of the day, and try and avoid the corm.

Once the plant has finished flowering there is no reason to discard it -  you can either plant it in the garden in a shady spot that is protected from frost, or you can put it in a cool spot for the summer months, reducing the watering, and then re pot it in fresh potting mix next autumn for winter.

Smaller and certainly less well-known are the dwarf species, found throughout the Mediterranean area. The best known of these is the diminutive ivy-leaved species, C. hederifloium, which is sometimes seem naturalised in extensive swathes in large gardens, its carpet of shining white and soft pink flowers always looking stunning in later summer and early autumn. I have grown this in pots in the glasshouse, along with its slightly less hardy cousin, C. africanum, which has marginally longer stems in my experience.
Among the other forms I have grown is the lovely winter flowering C. coum, with rounded leaves, usually deep green, but sometimes marbled with silver, and in some special strains, pewter coloured. The flowers, which are slighter stumpier than other species, are usually pink, of varying shades, with a deep maroon blotch at the bottom of each petals. 

This species is quite hardy – it is naturalised in parts of Great Britain, so should be perfectly fine in New Zealand.  It is also reasonable able to look after itself in the garden.  I grow moist of my small cyclamen in the glasshouse, not because they are not hardy, but because that way I can get too see them easier, and can appreciate their beauty better. Like all cyclamen species, they set deed readily, contained within a capsule that sits just above soil level, but is spring loaded.  When the seed is ready the seeds are rapidly dispersed, and germinate where they land, meaning I have pots that end up with more than one species.

Over summer my iris seedlings are grown underneath the glasshouse benches, each 100mm pot holding a separate seedling.  Imagine my surprise and my perplexed expression when I discovered some C. coum growing in the iris beds this winter.  I can only assume they must have been dropped into the seedling pots before they were planted out, and have germinated in the potting soil when it was placed into the iris beds.   

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