From the end of autumn and right through winter, garden centers and florist shops, even supermarkets, display pots of magnificent florist’s cyclamens. With their multicolored flowers and their rosette of beautiful leaves often marbled with silver, the cyclamen is a most attractive plant… but not always easy to grow.
Still, if you’re willing to bend your indoor gardening techniques a bit, you can grow it. Here’s how…
But First a Bit of History
The plant we know as the florist’s cyclamen or just cyclamen was derived from the Persian cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum). In the wild, it grows in the eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East, but curiously, despite its name, is not found in the wild in Persia (Iran). It produces its small pink or white flowers during the winter and spring, taking advantage of the cool and relatively rainy weather that prevails there at that season, then goes dormant during the hot, dry summer, retiring into an underground tuber.
The florist’s cyclamen – the one you see sold in stores – is bigger, more colorful and more vigorous than the species, as it is a triploid or tetraploid (it has more chromosomes than normal). In spite of the increased genetic material and the fact that it will no longer cross with the wild species, it is still considered a C. persicum.
The cultivated cyclamen was developed in Europe, essentially from the end of the 19th century on, for use as a gift plant. Growers liked it because 1) it bloomed in the winter when getting other plants to bloom was difficult and 2) it would grow in an unheated or barely heated greenhouse, which made it inexpensive to produce. The reasons that made it so popular 150 years ago are still true today.
It’s important to understand that the greenhouse industry has never considered the florist’s cyclamen to be a houseplant. It’s a gift plant, period. Its role is to look pretty for a few weeks, then die. Then you replace it with a newly-purchased one. But sly indoor gardeners can stretch out its use for months, even years, by catering to its special needs.
Grown From Seed
Unlike most other “bulbs”, the florist’s cyclamen doesn’t form offsets, nor will it root from cuttings. And you can’t divide the tuber either (well, actually, you could, but the cut surface rarely heals well and therefore tends to rot). Theoretically it can be grown by tissue culture (i.e. in a test tube), but that’s not how it is grown commercially. It is instead grown by seed, usually started about 18 months to two years before you purchase the plant.
The flowers of the florist’s cyclamen are certainly curious. Borne on an arched stem, the downward-facing flower starts to open normally, then its petals bend and twist backwards, giving it the appearance of a butterfly about to land. The color range is extensive, including white, pink, purple, violet, salmon and red, and most are bi- or even tricolor, often with a contrasting eye. You’ll find cultivars with fringed or ruffled petals as well.
The wild form was very fragrant, but hybrid varieties often have little or no odor. If you prefer scented plants, make sure you take a whiff before you buy.
The leaves are often nearly as attractive as the flowers. Heart-shaped, sometimes with a toothed margin, the leaf is reddish underneath and green and silver on top. The amount and pattern of silver varies from one strain to another. The best combination is, of course, a plant with pretty flowers and beautiful foliage.
As for size, the classic florist’s cyclamen is about a foot (30 cm) across, but the very attractive (and less expensive) miniature cyclamens are currently all the rage and they can measure as little as 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter.
Does the Cyclamen Deserve Its Prima Donna Reputation?
The florist’s cyclamen has the reputation of being capricious and dying quickly when conditions don’t suit it… and there is more than a bit of truth to that. However, modern varieties are not as hard to grow as those of 20 or 30 years ago. There has been a lot of work put into developing cyclamens that “hold better” under retail conditions and that has been an indirect advantage for indoor gardeners. Dwarf varieties, especially, seem more tolerant of home conditions and may be a better choice for your first experience.
Keep ‘Em Cool and Well-lit
The key to success with this plant is to find it a spot where it can get both cool temperatures and bright light.
On the temperature side, ideally you would aim for a maximum of 60˚F (15˚C), but 68˚C (20˚C) is acceptable (and easier to supply!). The minimum temperature is just above freezing (33˚F/1˚C) and it fact, it will tolerate frost – yes, even when it is in full bloom! – as long as it’s only fleeting. So the ideal situation would be to grow it in a barely heated room.
Still, you can grow one on a normal windowsill as long as temperatures drop at night. Just avoid spots that are really hot during the day.
It also needs good light, although not full sun. In most climates, an east window is ideal, as it gets good light with some direct sun, but only in the coolness of the morning. A south or west exposure is also acceptable, especially during the winter, but you’ll probably have to move the plant back from the window or to a cooler spot when the sun gets stronger and hotter in the spring. A northern exposure would be fine from May to October, but is probably too dark in the winter.
You can also grow and bloom cyclamens under fluorescent lights.
Moist But Not Wet
The cyclamen is persnickety when it comes to soil moisture as well. It prefers evenly moist soil, but will rot away if the soil is soaking wet. So you have to keep it in a “barely moist” state for good results.
Ideally you’d water thoroughly as soon as the soil is dry to the touch. My suggestion: check the soil’s condition every 3 to 4 days and water as needed. People who stick to a once-a-week watering schedule, unfortunately, tend to lose their plants, as it seems to have the capacity to go from evenly moist to bone dry in just a few days. A week can be too long to go without a watering!
This is one plant it is better to water from below, filling the saucer with water and allowing the potting mix to drink its fill. Be careful not to let the pot soak in water for too long, though: after 15 or 20 minutes, empty the saucer from any surplus water.
Why not water from above? Well, some people do so and get away with it, but there is a risk of inadvertently pouring water into the depression on the top of the tuber and that could cause rot.
If you find your cyclamen completely wilted (unfortunately, an all too common occurrence) and its growing mix dry as dust, water well and the plant should recover… but it will almost certainly lose a few leaves and flowers. But there is a limit to the number of times the plant can recover from such a trauma. Try not to let it happen again.
On the other hand, if you find your plant wilted, but its soil is still moist, it’s suffering from rot, a much more serious situation. If so, water very moderately for a while, keeping the soil barely moist, and it may recover after new roots have formed. If rot has reached the tuber itself, however, there is nothing to be done.
Good atmospheric humidity is also important… plus the plant will dry out much less quickly when the air is humid, saving you a lot of effort watering.
The air in our homes is however often very dry when outdoor temperatures are cold. So, in the winter, try using a humidifier or place the plant on a humidity tray to boost the humidity. Another possibility is to surround it with other plants: since each one gives off humidity due to transpiration, that it helps create a moister microclimate.
You’ll need to break one of the usual rules about fertilizing, though, the one that says not to “feed” your houseplants in the winter. While your other houseplants are in slow-to-no growth mode under the short days of winter, the cyclamen is a winter grower by nature and puts on most of its growth under short days. Therefore, from November through April, add a little fertilizer to the watering can, that is, at 1/8th of the recommended dose.
The type of fertilizer is of little importance as is any specific NPK formula. Any fertilizer you have on hand will be suitable.
Cyclamens need quite a bit of grooming to look their best, as they constantly lose older leaves and flowers and replace them with new ones. You can easily remove the fading ones by giving the stem a twist as you give it a light tug.
Breaking the Rules: Keep Your Cyclamen Growing in Summer
Many readers will be surprised to see that I suggest growing your cyclamen year-round, including right through summer. That was certainly not what I was told to do when I first started growing cyclamens 40 years ago, but many modern strains of cyclamens don’t seem to be as picky about needing a summer dormancy as older ones were. As long as you can keep your cyclamen reasonably cool, you’ll probably be surprised to see it bloom at least modestly right through the summer with no rest whatsoever.
In late spring, therefore, when your plant begins to bloom less and produce fewer leaves, it’s time to change its growing conditions. Move it to a cooler place (again, a maximum of 68˚F/20˚C if you find such a spot) with good light. In many homes, that would be a north window. Some people put them outdoors in the summer, inserting the pot into to the soil in a shady spot so it will be cooler. Personally, I move mine to the basement in the summer, because I find it easier to supply the needed freshness there. They grow very well under my basement’s fluorescent lamps.
Obviously, keep watering your cyclamen as need to maintain its growth. If you let it dry out, it will go dormant!
Or Let it Go Dormant
If you don’t have a cool spot – or don’t want to be bothered with a temperamental houseplant while you’re busy gardening outdoors – by all means let it go dormant for the summer. When you see it stop blooming and its foliage begins to turn yellow, usually in late May or early June, just stop watering it. Some foliage may hang on for a few weeks, even without water, but when it finally turns yellow, remove it.
You can then place the pot in a dark corner until fall (the usual recommendation) or leave it in the full blazing sun. (At this point, the plant will be dormant and won’t notice the difference!) Do check the pot occasionally, pushing lightly down on the tuber (the top of which is normally exposed). If it feels a bit soft, water lightly – just a few spoonfuls – to keep it from drying out entirely.
When you see small leaves emerging from the top of the tuber in August or September, start watering again: lightly at first, then more abundantly as the foliage begins to grow back. Put it back in a cool and brightly spot… and soon your cyclamen will again be in full bloom again!
Your cyclamen’s tuber will grow over time and eventually you’ll find you’ll need to repot it into a larger pot. The best time to do so is in August or September, just as growth resumes. Repot using a light potting mix and replant the tuber as it was at the original pot, that is, with the top of the tuber (its crown) slightly exposed.
Cyclamen as Winter Annual
In regions with mild winters (zones 9 to 11), such as southern California, florist’s cyclamen is often used as a winter annual and planted in the garden, usually from October or November to March or April. When it starts to bloom less, it is yanked and replaced by summer annuals (marigolds, salvias, cosmos, etc.).
Potted cyclamens can also be grown outside during the winter in more temperate regions as long as they are brought indoors on frosty nights. I’ve seen them used as a living winter decoration for flowerboxes in Paris, for example. In truly cold climates, where subfreezing temperatures are a nearly daily occurence, you can only grow the florist’s cyclamen indoors.
And there you go: the capricious yet beautiful cyclamen will give you months of beautiful flowers… but you do have to bend a bit to its whims to get the best results!