The seasonal flowers of Christmas are few. Nothing like the countless options for Mother’s Day or Easter. It boils down to forced flowers that are best grown in a greenhouse or those that requires cool temperatures to be happy. With only one exception, the wonderful Christmas cactus that can be grown with ease.
Of the cool season growers, paperwhites become floppy when grown too warm, cyclamen thrive in 50 to 60 degree temperatures, a cold house by anyone’s standards. Bottom line, it require more than a green thumb to grow these well. The florist cyclamen is Cyclamen persicum. Numerous common names represent the same plant. Sowbread refers to wild boars eating the tubers in the wild. Persian violet is another moniker but poorly represents the plant since it’s not from Persia but Turkey, Israel, and Greece. Nor is it related to violets, but a member of the primrose family. People prefer to use its botanical name, pronounced SY-cla-men or SIK-la-men. A tender tuber, hardy in some California locations, unable to tolerate frost. They are glorious in flower and leaf, charming and popular. It’s only a matter of time before you are gifted or gifting one. I prefer to find fragrant varieties, something that elevates my desire to own one.
To grow them well I will offer a little story of success, from a grower of cyclamen. A greenhouse range, built in 1913, was located in Hamilton, Virginia. At the time it was built, the range was state of the art. Glass greenhouses radiated out from the main structure, called a head house (in layman’s terms). Over the years the structure aged, glass cracked or broke completely. The structure became a drafty, cold place in winter, despite upgrades to the heating system. One of their most successful crops were cyclamen. To the point that they were considered the best in the United States. A multiple page spread in a popular greenhouse growers magazine recognized this and the grower attributed it to the flaws of the greenhouse, where it was always a bit chilly.
Advice runs the gamut when it comes to growing cyclamen. “When you receive the inevitable gift of Cyclamen persicum, switch it into a clay pot immediately and it will survive rather than sulk” says Tovah Martin in her book “The Unexpected Houseplant”. Water them carefully say others, too much is worse than too little.
They are a bulb, with a cycle of growth that begins in fall and ends in late spring. To summer them over, let the potted bulb go dormant and lay the pot on its side to dry out. Keep it as cool as possible. With fall, the first signs of life will appear as small leaves coming from the tuber’s center. Upright the pot and begin to water lightly. Remember to keep the plant shaded and cool. The flowering cycle is triggered by short days, a large part of why they are perfect for December. They are actually not difficult to grow if you have that chilly window ledge.
If you are fond of the plant but find it unsuccessful, consider Cyclamen hederifolium, or one of the hardy cyclamen. These grow from small, hardy tubers, and return year after year. Diminutive but tough and charming, with the same alternating patterns of variegation and flowers in August and September.