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Extension's Greatest Hits


Originally published by Jennifer Schultz Nelson on 12/06/2009


'Tis the season for gift giving, and as a plant lover my favorite gifts to give and receive are plants. One of my favorite flowering houseplants is the cyclamen, whose growth cycle is well suited to holiday displays. The cool days of autumn promote dazzling winter blooms in cyclamen.

There are 23 different known species of Cyclamen in the world. They are native to the Mediterranean region near Spain, extending east to Iran and also Northeast Africa. They are considered to be perennial plants, although many species would not be considered perennial in central Illinois since they cannot tolerate frost. The cyclamen typically grown in the home, Cyclamen persicum, is definitely not frost tolerant.

Breeding of Cyclamen persicum began in the mid-1800's primarily in England and the Netherlands. Plant breeders' main goal was to select for flowers that were bigger than that of the wild species.

During the 1960's, breeders at Wye College, University of London experimented with crossing large-flowered cultivars back with the wild species. They developed smaller plants with scented flowers and very attractive foliage. These were released as the 'Wye College Hybrids'.

Today most cyclamen are produced in mass quantities in the Netherlands and Germany from F1 hybrid seed.

The success of breeding cyclamen is evident when you look at the diversity of form and size available to the consumer. Their flowers come in many shades of red, pink, purple, and white, some are double flowers or have ruffled edges. The plants themselves come in varying sizes, from relatively large to petite miniatures.

The flowers are borne on graceful bending stems, appearing to hover above the heart shaped foliage. What attracts me to the flowers was their delicate wing-like nature—they remind me of birds or butterflies.

Cyclamen plants can be found nearly anywhere this time of year, from your locally owned greenhouse to the nearby discount giant. The flowers should stand straight, curving at the flower. A floppy, sagging stem is a bad sign, and probably indicates much larger problems with the plant. It's a good idea to look for cyclamen that only have a few flowers open, with many buds forming at the base of the plant waiting to emerge in the coming weeks.

Watering cyclamen can be tricky—I confess that I've killed more than one cyclamen by overwatering. The combination of too much water and not enough air movement around the plant is a prescription for certain death, usually due to disease. I have had good luck growing cyclamen in self-watering containers designed for African violets in which a porous clay pot containing the plant nests inside a glazed pot filled with water. The porous pot absorbs just the right amount of water for the plant without overwatering.

Cyclamens grow from tubers that hold water and nutrients to support the plant during its dormant period in the summer. This dormant period is referred to as estivation, from the Latin meaning "summer sleep". It is similar to an animal going into hibernation to survive through the winter. As the weather warms, the cyclamen's leaves will yellow and the plant becomes dormant. This process helps the plant survive the hot dry summers in its native lands. Many people mistakenly discard the plant at this point. Or they continue to water the plant thinking it needs water, and the plant ends up dying from being overwatered—I've made this mistake myself. If allowed to remain dry and dormant through the summer months, the cyclamen should resume growth in the fall as temperatures cool and watering resumes, starting the blooming cycle again.

Cyclamen do best in a cool bright location indoors, ideally no warmer than 68ºF during the day, and as low as 40ºF at night, to maximize the blooming period. But take care to avoid hot or cold drafts, as this may trigger blooms to drop. Remove flowers as they fade to promote new blooms. Remove or make holes in any decorative wrapping around the pot so that water drains freely. Above all, enjoy this plant's colorful blooms as the winter winds howl outside!

There is still time to join the 2010 Master Gardener Training class. Class begins on Thursday, January 21, 2010 and continues each Thursday through April 1, 2010. You don't need to be an expert to take the Master Gardener class. You just need to be interested in gardening, giving back to your community through Master Gardener volunteer projects, and having fun with an enthusiastic, friendly group of people. Check out our page on Facebook under "Macon County Master Gardener and Horticulture Program" and check out some pictures of our latest activities and gardening tips.