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Growing Cyclamen in Greece and Marin

  • Barbara J. Euser
  • The pink and white flowers bend forward shyly on their slender stems. The stems rise naked from stone outcrops, a niche in the root of an ancient olive tree, or in happy profusion in the rich soil under a carob tree. Their dark green leaves will unfold later. These are wild cyclamen, growing in my Mediterranean garden in Greece.

    In my Mediterranean garden in Marin County, I also have cyclamen, growing under the fragrant leaves of Salvia clevelandii. They are not a wild species. I planted a pot of cyclamen originally given to me this time of year by my mother-in-law. When the blooms faded, the foliage was still flourishing, so I planted it outside. Over several years, it has spread by self-sowing seeds until it occupies an area adjacent to a garden bench.
    According to the Cyclamen Society, an international society of cyclamen enthusiasts and scientists based in England, there are twenty species of cyclamen. Native to Europe and Mediterranean climates, their range extends from North Africa through Turkey, Greece, France and Switzerland to Slovakia.
    Belonging to the primrose family, the relatively small genus of Cyclamen includes species that bloom every month of the year. The species growing in my garden in the southern Peloponnese is Cyclamen graecum. It is one of the fall-flowering species. The cyclamen in my Marin garden is a cultivar of Cyclamen pensicum, the species of cyclamen that is most often grown commercially. A popular house plant, available from florists and even grocery stores, Cyclamen persicum normally flowers in the spring, but can be forced to flower for the winter holidays using artificial light in greenhouses. Blossoms range from white to pink, rose, red and magenta. Although Cyclamen persicum will not tolerate frost, it has survived enthusiastically sheltered under shrubs in my garden in San Rafael.
    The foliage of cyclamen is interesting in itself. Leaves vary from arrow-shaped to heart-shaped to kidney-shaped to round, depending on the species. The dark green leaves often have intricate patterns, traced in light green, cream or silver. At least two commercially available cultivars, Cyclamen hederifolium ‘Silver Cloud’ and Cyclamen graecum ‘Glyfada’ have pure silver foliage.
    Fall-blooming species brighten the garden when summer flowers have faded. Early spring-blooming species are among the first flowers to appear, accompanying crocus and hellebores. For summer-blooming cyclamen, Cyclamen purpurascens flowers between June and September. This hardy species originates in Switzerland and Austria and grows in deciduous or partly evergreen woods up to 4,260 feet in elevation. Its range extends the furthest north of any cyclamen species and it can tolerate temperatures as low as -19 degrees F., if blanketed by snow.
    All parts of cyclamen are inedible by humans. However, pigs enjoy them, giving rise to their common name “sowbread.” Other, more attractive, common names include Persian Violet and Poor Man’s Orchid.
    Medicinal uses for cyclamen were first recorded by Dioscorides, a Greek surgeon in the first century C.E. According to his manuscripts, the root purges and cleanses the skin; it cures blemishes and boils; taken alone or with honey, it heals wounds; as a plaster it does good to a sunburned face; and it makes hair grow again.
    Caring for cyclamen is easy. Indoors, cyclamen prefer temperatures around 55 degrees F. and indirect sun. Pots should be allowed to dry between watering and saucers should be emptied after watering. Excess heat and overwatering are the most common ways to kill cyclamen. Like many Mediterranean natives, fall and spring flowering cyclamen have a dormant period during the summer months. Cyclamen purpurascens flowers in the summer, going dormant in winter. During dormancy, plants lose their leaves and stop growing. Houseplants should be put in a dry spot until fall. Outside plants do not require summer water; they prefer filtered sun and good drainage.
    Cyclamen produce seed and will spread by self-sowing. They grow from tubers, which like potatoes, may be divided and propagated, providing each piece has a growth eye and a root region.
    In my Marin garden, having moved successfully from indoors to outside, the cyclamen on their slender stems—shy no more—continue to delight year after year.