Garden Notes: Drainage is key to growing Cyclamen

Q. Is it true that there are kinds of cyclamen that will grow outdoors in our climate? I love the ones grown as houseplants and would enjoy having them as garden plants, too.

A. There are two species of Cyclamen that overwinter in protected locations in western Pennsylvania that I have grown successfully, Cyclamen coumand C. hederifolium.

The main secret to growing these gems is very sharp drainage, especially when they are dormant. All grow from small tubers that easily succumb to rot when the surrounding soil remains too moist for too long. Both species are hardy in USDA zones 5-9.

Pink Cyclamen

Cyclamen coum, or hardy cyclamen, is native to Asia Minor and southeastern Europe where it is found in shady areas, often mingled with tree roots and rocks. The glossy, dark green, heart-shaped leaves appear in fall, often highlighted by silvery markings.

Flowers bloom late winter to early spring in colors ranging from white to rosy-pink with the strongly reflexed petals reminiscent of the familiar florist’s cyclamen, but far more delicate. Both flowers and foliage are dormant through the summer.

Hardy cyclamen grows in woodlands, as well as on rocky cliffs.

It blooms in fall with pink or pink-tinged-white flowers that have a deep magenta eye and strongly reflexed petals.

The handsome foliage begins to grow as the blooms fade, with ivy-shaped, often silver-and-white mottled leaves that persist through winter.

White Cyclamen

The hardy cyclamens can make very attractive ground covers in woodland gardens or under trees as an alternative to pachysandra and periwinkle. Hardy cyclamen are at their best in part shade and humusy, evenly moist, yet well-drained soil. However, they grow well in average garden soil as long as it drains well. They are well adapted to dry shade situations, such as the north side of a building or under established trees. These delicate, but tough beauties grow four to six inches tall, each tuber producing a clump that can spread 12-18 inches in diameter.

Grown from a tuber

Cyclamen species grow from a round tuber that grows in diameter over time, but does not produce offsets. Old tubers of certain species can grow to a foot or more in diameter. Fibrous roots may arise from the top, sides or bottom of the tuber, depending on the species. Tubers should be planted just below the soil surface.

Name origin is ‘kyklos’

The name “cyclamen” comes from the Greek kyklos, meaning circular, because of the way the seed stalk twists as the seed ripens. The twisting action pulls the seed closer to contact with the soil, where it has the best chance of growing. Hardy cyclamen often self-seed in the garden, especially where conditions suit them, but are never invasive.

This is a good time to pot up those cyclamen babies. Growing so close doesn’t harm them but if you leave them a while that way, it’s good to give a dilute liquid feed or bone meal. Just depot, put into a new, small pot or into a large one, spacing them 1 to 2 inches apart, spreading the roots out, with the tubers level with the soil, more or less. Water in well. You can add bone meal at this time but no other fertilizer until they’ve been in their pots 3-4 weeks and are showing signs of active growth. I transplant cyclamen anytime they’re in growth, but not usually while completely dormant. For cyclamen in pots, never allow them to totally dry out because even if you discover it and water them, the tubers often soften and rot.

Sad to say, I’ve learned this lesson the hard way… However, as they are usually breaking dormancy about now, I’d go ahead. If in growth, they could be a bit floppy but it won’t matter by next year. I transplant seedlings up to 3/4-inch into 2-inch-by-3-inch “rosepots” and use a good quality free-draining soil mix. Depending on the species, I may add a little 1/4-10 gravel or pumice of similar size. The less peat in the mix the better as it retains moisture too much or dries out and is difficult to rewet. When cyclamen totally fill their pots with roots then move up to the next size only. Do not overpot, which means putting them in a pot too large.