Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Enchanting Hardy Cyclamen

I pluck the cyclamen
red by wine-red
and place the petals
stiff ivory and bright fire
against my flesh

Now I am powerless 
to draw back
for the sea is cyclamen-purple
cyclamen red, colour of the last grapes
colour of the purple of the flowers
cyclamen-coloured and dark.

 - H.D., from The God

Cyclamen (pronounced SIGH-kla-men) is a genus of 23 species of perennials mostly native to the Mediterranean region, and often naturalized elsewhere.  The name refers to the twisted flower stalks of some species.  Flower colors range from white to deep burgundy.  With their alluring, swept-back petals and charming foliage, cyclamen are captivating.  Perhaps that is why some are so popular as gift plants.

Daniel Foley, Editor of Horticulture and staff member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, wrote that Cyclamen europaeum "which was dedicated to Mary was also used as a charm against bad weather. From the angle of its blooms on their stems it was known in Germany as Our Lady's Little Ladles."  Others, Paghat for example, suggest that the genus has associations with witchcraft (that's possible) and that the oil of cyclamen applied externally has mysterious powers beneficial to women (that's doubtful).

In literature, cyclamen were considered to be so enchanting that children seeking them in the forests might never return.

The gentle cyclamen with dewy eye
Breathes o'er her lifeless babe
The parting sigh;
And bending low with pious hands
Inhumes her dear departed in the sands.
Sweet Nursling, withering in thy tender hour,
"Oh, sleep," She cries and rise a fairer flower!"

- Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

It's more complicated, but you can see the symbol of the BVM in Darwin's poem.  Keep in mind that, like very many ornamental plants, cyclamen are toxic if eaten.

Unfortunately, the most popular gift species, C. persicum, is not cold-hardy, so it comes as a surprise to many of today's gardeners that some cyclamen species may actually be grown outdoors.  But gardeners in ages past knew it for hardy cyclamen, flowering in autumn and winter, were often grown in cemeteries to provide seasonal color.

Cyclamen hederifolium, also known as C. neapolitanum, (seen in the photo above) may take cold weather best.  Hederifolium (pronounced hed-er-ih-FOH-lee-um) means "having leaves like Hedera (the ivy genus).  Common names include Hardy Cyclamen and Ivy-Leaved Cyclamen.  It is certainly the most widely cultivated among the hardy cyclamen.  It is a lovely little plant, native from southern France to western Turkey, that adds charm to the shady corner of your garden.  You'll enjoy the ivy-shaped, variegated foliage and fragrant, pink flowers from late summer to early fall.  Though very similar in appearance to the florist cyclamen, hardy cyclamen thrives outdoors in USDA zones 5 through 9, performing best in light shade.  It even produces seed and self-sows readily when conditions are to its liking.  Soil should be well-drained but slightly moist.  Take care not to over-water.  Recommended pH is 6.1 to 7.8.  Take a soil sample to your nearby Cooperative Extension Service office to determine the soil pH.

They can be grown from seeds, stem tubers or established plants.  Planting stem tubers combines reliability and economy.

Cyclamen tubers will be firm.  Roots grow from the sides and bottom.  The tops will be slightly rough with some little bumps from which new growths emerge.  Plant cyclamen tubers in the spring.  When planting, space the tubers about 10" to 12" apart and cover with 1" to 2" of soil.  Water well and gently, taking care not to wash the tubers out of the soil.  Allow the soil to become dry before watering again.

Hardy cyclamen are sure to delight you.  Whether they will ward off bad weather or bestow mysterious benefits is doubtful.  But I believe that if you plant some in your garden and become beguiled by their beauty, you will still return safely indoors.

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