Plant of the Month: September 2021

Cyclamen hederifolium

by Peter Williams

Cyclamen hederifolium is one of my favourite garden plants. Flowers appear just as the long days of summer are becoming noticeably shorter and making me feel a little sad at the approach of autumn and winter – if only I had been born a galanthophile! However, the sight of cyclamen flowers popping up from bare earth or through a canopy of fallen or decaying leaves always restores my spirits and optimism. 

Fig. 1– Cyclamen hederifolium flowering in late August beneath the canopy of a beech tree. 

The main flowering period for C. hederifolium is August, September and October but some plants begin flowering in late July and others may still be flowering in early November. Flowers are various shades of pink or white and are usually produced before the exquisitely marbled leaves begin to appear. The variability and attractiveness of the foliage is reason enough to grow this beautiful and undemanding European species, 

Fig. 2– Leaves of naturalised C. hederifolium growing at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire showing the great diversity of leaf forms. 

C. hederifolium naturally occurs in Europe; from France in the west, to Turkey in the east and is found in woodland, scrub, hedgerows and rocky outcrops. It has been grown in Great Britain since the sixteenth century and has become naturalised in many locations especially in southern and eastern England. 

Cyclamen are mentioned in John Gerarde’s Generall Historie of Plantes published in 1597 and were widely used by herbalists to treat just about every condition from snakebites to cataracts, boils and wounds. Gerarde suggested that cyclamen corms could be beaten into little flat cakes and used as ‘a good amorous medicine to make one in love’.1 He goes on to warn, however, that pregnant women should not take, touch or even step over cyclamen because to do so might risk giving birth prematurely! Taking medicines containing cyclamen was probably a very unpleasant experience because extracts were distasteful and had emetic properties. James Edward Smith, who like many early botanists, tasted the plants he studied, noted in 1828 ‘that it was a very acrid plant, especially the root whose acrimony is not much perceived at the first but soon becomes intolerable.2 

Botanically, C. hederifolium is a very long-lived tuberous perennial and a member of the Primula family. It is one of 20 or so species in the genus Cyclamen. When seedlings first emerge, they quickly form small swellings on their roots that develop into the corms. Over decades, the corms can reach diameters exceeding 30cm and may be crowded one upon the other in the soil. Leaves follow the flowers and remain on the plant until late spring /early summer when the plants become dormant until the flowers appear in late summer. 

The generic name is derived from the Greek kyklaminos that means a circle and is thought to refer to coiling of the flower stem that occurs after pollination3 (Fig.5). The specific name hederifolium means ivy leaf because the patterning and outline of cyclamen leaves look similar to ivy – Hedera helix. The species was formerly known as C. neopolitanum because it was common around Naples. In Europe, the common name is often Sowbread or Swinebread because the corms are foraged by wild boars (Gerarde refers to Panis porcinus). 

The flowers of C. hederifolium have five reflexed petals each with a U- shaped purple mark and a pair of ear-like projections (auricles) at the base. The petals can be linear with an acutely pointed tip or more rounded with a less pronounced tip and are often slightly twisted. 

Fig.3– Flower forms of C.hederifolium

The flowers on the white forms are equally variable and have auricles but no basal purple u-shaped markings.

Fig. 4– The white form – C. hederifolium ‘Album’

Cyclamen flowers are self-fertile and when pollination has occurred, the stem becomes tightly coiled and pulls the developing seed pod down to the ground. 

Fig. 5 stems after fertilisation and mature seed pod with seeds

Over the next 9-12 months the seed pods develop and by July of the year following flowering, they will be approximately one centimetre in diameter. The pods open to reveal numerous seeds with a sticky coating that serves to attract ants and other animals that probably aids dispersal. 

Freshly collected seed will germinate freely if washed to remove the sticky material. Stored seeds obtained from seed merchants or from the HPS seed exchange should be soaked overnight and will again germinate easily. Seeds can be broadcast into soil although better results are probably obtained by sowing seed in trays stored outside or in a cold glasshouse. Seedlings will usually start to flower in their second year and very many can be raised in even a small seed tray. Young corms can be planted out either in growth or when dormant. 

Fig.6 – A half seed tray with numerous small corms. Left, in growth and right, the following summer

Dry corms offered very cheaply by bulb companies and garden centres often fail to grow and should probably be avoided. 

Cyclamen hederifolium is totally hardy and will thrive in most soil types and conditions except heavy wet soils. It is generally more tolerant of poor soils than Cyclamen coum, the equally attractive spring flowering species. Plants will grow well in shade and can tolerate the dry conditions beneath the canopy of trees and it is one of the few species that will grow well on the north side of a wall or dense evergreen hedge like privet or Leyland’s cypress. 

Nurseryman have named many selections that have particularly attractive flowers or leaves to cater for the collectors amongst us to display in alpine houses or raised beds. For me, however, Cyclamen hederifolium looks best when naturalised in a rough part of the garden where they can seed around delightfully.

Fig. 7– Naturalised area of C. hederifolium at Wakehurst Place in Sussex 
  1. The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. John Gerarde, 1597 p 694-695 
  1. The English flora. James Edward Smith Vol 1, 1824 p273 
  1. Plant Names Simplified. A.T. Johnson & H.A.Smith. 2nd Ed 1931 p32 

Peter Williams

Pictures courtesy of Peter Williams

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