By Stephanie Cavanaugh
‘IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL morning. All along the river, sunlight shimmered through the willow trees, making the leaves glow a luminous green . . . wild cyclamen grew along the path in patches, like tiny pink butterflies.”*
Oh my, I said to myself, closing the book. Wild cyclamen. Tiny pink butterflies. Add glitter and you have a child’s birthday card.
I want, I said again, just to myself.
The Maidens, by Alex Michaelides, from which I pulled this quote, is set at Cambridge University. It can be beastly cold and wet in that part of England in winter. Surely such tender flowers wouldn’t survive. But it seems the temperatures there are similar to those in our southern states, including Florida plus Hawaii. You might feel miserable, bone-chilled, but frosts and snow are rare. Which is why, in the more southern reaches of England, geraniums perk up window boxes throughout the year. And cyclamen, it seems, blossom in springtime.
Would it be possible to naturalize wild cyclamen here? Perhaps under the massive oak in front of the house, where the sun speckles the shade in the heat of the summer months. They do prefer shade.
This reminds me, and here I digress, so stop reading if you wish, of crackers. I recently realized that I can make crackers. Baking bread, sure. Pie, sure. Cake, of course. But crackers? They come in boxes. I happen to like stoned wheat thins, which have a bit of character but don’t fight with the Brie. It never occurred to me to bake them. I haven’t yet, but that is neither here nor there. That I can is enough.
To get back to the story at hand. The first cyclamen I ever saw was 40 or so years ago at the Washington Cathedral Greenhouse, a magical place with many little pots of this and that which I’d never seen before, probably because I never had a garden. These were perfect for my fire-escape balcony in Adams Morgan. The cyclamen were particularly enchanting; How could something so perfect exist? The colors so brilliant, the texture like velvet, all held within a corona of green leaves, like a natural bouquet.
Though they come in pink and white and purple and shades of red, it is the deep pink, what we call fuchsia, that particularly enraptures me. (Some years later, in a mad departure from black, I bought a silk shirt that color and actually wore it once, I think; colors make me nervous. That’s an aside. Not a digression.)
I bought one, of course, and another. Each year they flowered, then withered and were tossed. With no garden or greenhouse, and given the unreality of the flowers, I assumed they were annuals, or at least too tender to survive, tropical.
Most of the cyclamen we see in florist shops and garden centers are grown as ornamentals; they are not bred to survive outdoors, where temperatures drop below freezing. But there are plenty of wild cyclamen, grown from tubers, that will do just fine in the cold, arising in late winter with the snowdrops and crocus and such. Other varieties bloom at other points throughout the year, so you could, in theory, have a constant show of blossom.
You can also plant seed, but it will take years for them to materialize. Even the tubers can take a year or so to settle in and flower. Plant deeply, in the shade, and if it is to turn brutally cold for a spell, snuggle them under a thick layer of mulch. Once they take, if they take, cyclamen have a 100-year lifespan.
Imagine a scattering of them along a shaded path, maybe as a border for ferns, poked among the rocks surrounding a garden pool, velvet flowers unfurling as the frost melts, and disappearing into the foliage of something else as the summer heat blasts in.
For a positively exhaustive, though totally engaging, discussion of cyclamen, including the varieties most likely to survive outdoors in your area, see “Cyclamen—Great Hardy Perennials for the Garden” on the Plant Delights Nursery site (handily, they sell them, too).
*The Maidens by Alex Michaelides, a fine rabbit hole of a read, has more to offer than cyclamen and willows.
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