To take a quiet moment away from the bustle of Christmas Day, I usually go out and have a look around the garden to see which plucky plants are in bloom. It always takes me by surprise to see how many flowers there are: occasionally a wayward rose, often a hellebore and usually one of the scented viburnums. There are never very many flowers, but at this time of year each one is worth more than a whole border in midsummer. The plant that is always flowering, sometimes peeking through a layer of snow, is the hardy cyclamen, Cyclamen coum. In the shade of a walnut tree, a few plants, which I bought 10 years ago, have spread into a carpet of pink and white flowers that will continue through to March. Although individual flowers are just a few inches tall, each plant invariably produces dozens of flowers.
C. coum is a tough plant that needs no mollycoddling to produce a mass of beautiful flowers. The garden writer EA Bowles wrote that they ‘pay good rent’ because, as well as their dainty blooms, they often have attractively marked leaves. A relative of the primrose, they grow in woodlands and shady rocky places from Bulgaria to Turkey and around the eastern Mediterannean, particularly in Lebanon and Israel. They are dormant during the summer, starting into growth during the autumn when the weather cools and the rain starts. The foliage dies back in April or May.
The colour of the flowers in the wild varies through several tones of pale pink, with an occasional magenta or white flower. The round, leathery leaves are dark green and from time to time they have a grey speckle or band around their edge. These are the ones that breeders have used in order to produce plants with silvered or marbled foliage. If you would like to create a mass of flowers to be admired from a distance, then plant straightforward C. coum; you will probably have an interesting range of pink and magenta flowers and may get some unusual seedlings. If, however, you prefer plants that are a bit more special and that repay close examination, then you should plant some of the named varieties.
No matter which form of C. coum you decide to plant, you are guaranteed a reminder that, bleak though the winter weather might be right now, warm spring days and colourful gardens are just around the corner.
How to grow winter cyclamen
In the wild, C. coum grows where there is dappled shade in the summer and the soil is moist in autumn through to spring. These are conditions that are easy to mimic in Britain. The ideal place is underneath the canopy of deciduous trees and shrubs or in the shade of a garden wall or fence. In cold wet soil, the tubers will rot, so good drainage is essential. If you have a heavy clay soil, dig some leaf mould or grit into the area before planting. C. coum flower best in poor soils, so don’t be tempted to dig in compost or to add fertiliser as this will provide a wonderful crop of leaves but few flowers.
Don’t be disappointed if you have only a few flowers in the first season, as C. coum needs time to settle in.
The number of blooms will increase each year. Left undisturbed the plants will soon make large colonies. They are prolific self-seeders: leave the young seedlings where they are in the ground until they form a small tuber and then simply dig them up if you want to transplant them elsewhere.
It is better to start off with plants in pots that are already growing than with dry tubers. The tubers that you can buy in supermarkets and garden centres have been dry for a long time and usually take a year before they begin to flower in the garden. If you can find only dry tubers, plant them about half an inch below the soil and give them a thorough watering. Make sure that you plant them the correct way up: the bottom of the tuber is rounded and the top has a slight indentation where the flower stems will appear later. Cyclamen look best grown by themselves, but you can plant small bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops among them. Avoid vigorous bulbs, such as grape hyacinths (muscari) or the winter aconite (eranthis hyemalis), as they will eventually smother the cyclamen. And avoid planting C. coum with other types of cyclamen. The earlier-flowering C. hederifolium is also hardy and needs the same growing conditions as C. coum but is much more vigorous and will eventually swamp the later-flowering species.
Florists and supermarkets are full of cyclamen house plants at this time of year. Don’t confuse them with hardy cyclamen. Florists’ cyclamen are descended from a species called C. persicum, which is not hardy in Britain, so they will not survive for long in the garden.
Where to buy
Tile Barn Nursery, Iden Green, Benenden, Kent TN17 4LB (01580 240221; tilebarn-cyclamen.co.uk; no mail order)
Ashwood Nurseries, Ashwood, Kingswinford, West Midlands DY6 0AE (01384 401996; ashwood-nurseries.co.uk)
Broadleigh Gardens, Bishops Hull, Taunton, TA4 1AE (01823 286231, broadleighbulbs.co.uk)
For more information visit the Cyclamen Society at cyclamen.org