Cyclamens. Shuttlecock flowers in Victorian shades, with heart leaves

SAY the word ``cyclamen'' and what most of us think of is the popular florists' pot plant, which boldly brightens windowsills or dinner tables in winter. It can be a sizable affair with its distinctive pink, white, purple, or carmine flowers, massed showily on sturdy stems above large marbled, heart-shaped leaves.

Say the word ``cyclamen'' to Peter Moore, and what he thinks of is a far smaller, neater plant. It sports miniature shuttlecock flowers (often wonderfully scented) in shades of pink or white, delicately held on slender stems only an inch or two high. The little silver and green leaves are intricately patterned in an astonishing variety of ways and take any number of forms, from spearheads and hearts to perfectly rounded shields.

Mr. Moore is a cyclamen enthusiast - and that's to put it mildly.

``I'm told,'' he says, laughing when I ask if there is anyone else in the world quite like him, ``that I'm the most unique fanatic going!'' But the kind of cyclamens admired by this fanatic are not the man-developed varieties, but the natural, wild species. He grows hundreds in greenhouses at his home.

Moore and his wife live in a converted post house on a hill in this lovely part of Kent. After his 30 years in printing, early retirement with a pension means he no longer has to commute every day to London. Now he can give his all to the preoccupation that has absorbed him since he was 14.

Wild cyclamens can still be found flourishing in their native habitats, largely in Mediterranean countries. Moore's love of them has had him traveling all over - from Austria to the Greek islands, and just this spring from France to Turkey. There he and some colleagues studied in flowering profusion two of the mere 19 species of known cyclamens.

``I've seen cyclamen growing in pretty spectacular numbers in the Greek islands, but I'd never seen anything like this in Turkey.'' There were millions of them.

He was particularly excited to find a completely white Cyclamen coum. The species called coum (which is one of the hardiest cyclamens, and flowers in gardens very early in the spring) almost always has a pink blotch at the base of its white, pink, or magenta flowers. Moore and his friends rescued this rare white example from the sheep and goats and brought it home to Britain to propagate. The Turkish authorities allowed them to bring back 100 plants for their researches.

The Turks are beginning to value their cyclamens. Until recently they have been decimating them by digging up and exporting the tubers to the tune of 3 or 4 million a year, mainly to Holland. The Dutch have then been distributing them for sale in garden centers throughout Europe.

But now the Turks have agreed to gradually limit this unecological trade. The problem is that the well-traveled tubers, by the time they reach the gardening public, have dried out and lost their root structures. Moore reckons that ``at best there is a 50-50 chance that they will grow.''

Moore talked to me about his lifelong fascination for wild cyclamens in his potting shed. Nearby in his cool greenhouses, he grows them in a soil that has ``an immense amount of drainage.'' It is overwatering, he maintains, that accounts for the loss of more cyclamens than any other mistake. In the wild, most of them grow in woodland, where the trees drink up the moisture, or on quickly draining rocky hills. He uses a mix of a third topsoil with a third peat and a third three-eighths-inch crushed grit.

The completely hardy species like coum, repandum, purpurascens - and the easiest and most popular of all, the autumn-flowering hederifolium - left undisturbed in a shrubby spot in the garden can make wonderfully effective patches of color and leafage for a great many successive years. Tubers have been known to live for a century. They grow to the size of dinner plates and produce ever-increasing numbers of flowers and leaves.

Moore sells his cyclamens as well-rooted three-year-old plants grown in three-inch pots. They are growing; they're not dried-out tubers. He receives orders from Europe, New Zealand, the United States, and Japan, as well as Britain. In 1988 he offers 28 varieties out of the 47 listed in his catalog.

For specialists who want to grow the less hardy and less usual kinds, he has a supplementary list of a limited quantity of rarer species. Such nonhardy cyclamens can be grown with great success in pots in frost-free but cool glass houses.

Moore's own houses give a superb idea of the possibilities. Bay after bay of marvellous little plants burgeon in their pots, often pervading the air with a sweet scent. He never waters the pots themselves. Sufficient dampness is induced by watering the bed of grit the pots stand on.

Moore is secretary of the Cyclamen Society, started in Britain 10 and a half years ago. He says that among its now 800-plus members (25 percent living outside Britain, with a large contingent in Japan), ``however much we try to encourage it, we don't seem to get anybody who's terribly interested in cultivated, hothouse cyclamen. It's very embarrassing!'' He didn't seem in the least embarrassed to me.

One of the advantages of membership is free seed distribution.

Seed is the only way cyclamens, which are self-pollinating, can be propagated. It's very risky to split their tubers, Moore points out. But the way they produce their seeds is particularly attractive. The stems contract after the flowering period into springy spirals on which little globe-shaped seedpods slowly ripen. The seeds that eventually fall out can be handled separately. Only two or three of the species will cross with each other.

Moore does not go in for hybrids much. He doesn't feel the hybrids show any marked improvement on the species. His particular interest is in selecting and breeding the species for the interesting variety of their leaf forms.

For Peter Moore's list, please send your request to Tile Barn Nursery, Standen St., Iden Green, Benenden, Kent, TN17 4LB, England.

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