By Penny Pawl, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
Winter is the season of cyclamen. I love the variety of colors these beautiful plants have. To me they look like a gathering of butterflies hovering over bright green leaves.
In a village in Sicily last November, I saw the biggest cyclamen I had ever seen. The beautiful red blooms were two or more inches across and stood about 12 inches above the leaves. Since my return I have looked for such big ones but have not found them.
Years ago, while walking down a path in rural Greece, I spotted many small cyclamen growing down a hill, all in bloom with small pink flowers. The hill had trees shading all these beautiful little plants. I realized then that cyclamen are native to that area. Later, I did some research and confirmed that cyclamen are native to the Mediterranean and extend as far east as Iran.
The cyclamen we see in nurseries during this season are all hybrids and are often called “florist cyclamen” (C. persicum). They are grown in many parts of the world. Online, I found planting tips from sources in Australia, England and places in between. Some varieties (C. purpurascens) have a sweet scent. The florist hybrids no longer have any scent.
The leaves and flowers grow from a tuber which sits just above the soil and anchors itself by many roots. During the summer the tuber loses the flowers and leaves and goes dormant. Cyclamen leaves are beautiful unto themselves. Some are all green while others have patterns of white and green that look as if they were drawn on each leaf.
Years ago, I decided to collect seed from a plant I had purchased. I let the seed pods stay on the plant and ripen. When I harvested the seeds, I was hoping they would produce a duplicate of the parent plant. I should have known better. Hybrid seed does not breed true. The seedlings I grew from these seeds bloomed in pink, just like the small native ones I saw growing in Greece. I planted them in the garden where they are still flowering.
Cyclamen are not pollinated by bees but rather by hoverflies and other small insects. You can also pollinate them by hand using a small paintbrush.
Cyclamen are winter flowering in their native habitats. With hothouse cultivation and hybridization, the plants have been coaxed to bloom all year. In the garden they are dormant in summer. When the days shorten and the weather cools, they come to life.
You can divide a dormant tuber to produce more plants identical to the parent. To do so, lift the tuber, cut it into pieces, then replant. Do this in the fall before the plant produces leaves. Put rooting hormone on the cut surfaces to help the bulb heal. Plant in well-drained soil; cyclamen roots do not like to be too wet.
Snails and slugs will eat the tubers of garden-grown cyclamen. Be sure to control for these varmints.
Next workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will conduct a workshop on “Rose Pruning” on Saturday, January 11, from 10 a.m. to noon at University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. For more details and online registration visit http://ucanr.edu/2020rosepruning or call 707-253-4221.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a garden question, visit the Master Gardener website (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.