Wednesday, 11 January 2017

experiments with cyclamen

I am beginning to make progress with my display of Cyclamen cilicium.  This was the third species of garden cyclamen I tried after starting off with C. hederifolium and C. coum, which are the two you are most likely to encounter in a garden centre.  The former presents its flowers above naked soil in the autumn, and by now the flowers are long gone but the clusters of leaves have appeared. They have scalloped edges not unlike an ivy leaf (the clue's in the name) and are often patterned with handsome splashes of silver.  If you choose your plant in leaf you can make sure you pick out a good form, though if you are worried about flower colour you might want to try and find some while they are in flower, since they could be white or any shade of pink.

Cyclamen coum flowers later, generally around now.  Their leaves are shaped like rounded hearts without the scalloped edges of the ivy leaved cyclamen, and might have interesting silver patterns, or be pale silver all over, or just plain green.  They make wispier plants than C. hederifolium, which make dense and chunky circles of foliage once established, and I think the reason why you are advised not to plant the two species together in the same area is that C. coum can be smothered by its more domineering neighbour.  Both like shade, with C. hederifolium being particularly tolerant of dry shade according to shade plant specialists Long Acre Plants.

Both grew for me pretty well around the shady edges of the lower lawn in the back garden, and even began to seed into the lawn, until as is the way with plant lovers I began to wonder about the other species.  I wasn't interested in those that would only survive in the UK under glass, not having an alpine house and having plenty of other things to worry about, but according to my books and the catalogues of various people selling cyclamen, C. cilicium was more tolerant of sun than many, and was fairly hardy.  My eye fell upon a patch of gravel in front of the house where nothing else was growing.  East facing, the cyclamen would get sun for half the day and some residual warmth and protection from the building, and anyway we are in a fairly warm corner of the country.

I started with a few, which is how I often try out new plants.  If they tell you that they are very happy you can propagate them or buy some more, and if they never come up, rapidly die, or languish miserably then you know not to waste any more expense and effort.  Unless you really want them, that is.  My usual rule is that if it dies twice I'm not trying again, though I made an exception for the notoriously difficult to establish Romneya coulteri and it was a case of third time lucky.  The Romneya is now running and rampaging through its bed as Californian tree poppies are supposed to do, when they survive at all.

The first few Cyclamen cilicium did well enough for me to persist with the experiment, though they were not very exciting for the first few years.  In appearance they are quite like C. coum with the same rounded leaves, which are agreeably patterned in silver.  The flowers are supposed to be a tad smaller and I think that mine are are.  They range in colour from pale pink to a stronger shade, and come out in autumn.  From tentative and weedy beginnings my biggest plants are now quite substantial with well furnished rosettes of foliage, and (which is what prompted me to write about them) they are blooming again now, having had one flush before Christmas.

The horticultural trade is plagued with muddle and misidentifications, and not being a cyclamen expert I wouldn't be utterly surprised if I were ever to show my plants to somebody who was to be told that they were not true C. cilicium as found in the wild in their native Turkey, but some kind of hybrid, or even that a tuber or two of C. coum had slipped in by mistake.  But they do cope with half sun, and they do flower in autumn when they are supposed to.  Whatever they are, they are very pretty.  I was sufficiently encouraged by my first foray into growing them to buy more in subsequent years.

The extraordinarily cheap tubers I got from Peter Nyssen turned out to be cheap for a reason, as things so often are: they were dried and dormant, because dried and dormant is what Peter Nyssen sells.  I should not have been surprised.  The books generally advise not drying cyclamen out but buying them as growing plants.  I planted them, not entirely sure which way up most of them should go, and they didn't all take.  If I were doing that again I'd probably start them off in pots and then plant them out as growing plants, then at least I could turn any over that I'd got the wrong way up.  The following year I got some more in active growth, I think from Broadleigh Bulbs.  The RHS website lists twenty suppliers, so they are not that hard to track down, only you are unlikely to come across them without seeking them out.

The whole cyclamen by the front door project was in danger of being derailed last summer when we first let the kittens out, and they adopted the gravel by the front door as their litter tray.  We managed to put them off by watering the whole area with a solution of peppermint shower gel, but I'm not sure whether any tubers got dug up, or if any succumbed to the nitrogen rich stream of kitten pee and poo, or indeed the dosing with peppermint shower gel.  It is vicious stuff.  I bought it originally for showering, but the Systems Administrator rejected it outright after the first use and the only time I tried washing with it tender parts of my anatomy smarted painfully.  The best plants now are growing around the legs of an iron stand holding a terracotta oil jar, where the cats couldn't get at them.

Overall it has been a slow process.  The first few plants went in as long ago as 2009, and I started trying to bulk them up into a proper display a couple of years ago.  Losses have been heavy. Growing conditions must be tough quite apart from the cat litter episode, since while the drainage is good the soil is woefully low in humus, and being under gravel the tubers don't get regularly mulched, let alone dressed with chopped pine needles as some websites suggest.  They do get some supplementary water over the summer as they are fairly close to the roots of a Pileostegia I'm trying to encourage.  But while it has been slow, this winter I feel I'm getting there.  I might even buy a few more if I see them, to fill the remaining gap, and maybe stick some ornamental iron plant stakes among them to prevent any more lavatorial incidents.  And I should remember to go and inspect the plants as they finish flowering, in case they have set seed.

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