The 12 days of Christmas plants -- cyclamen

How to care for a cyclamen plant

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One of the most charming flowering plants available to indoor gardeners in winter is the florist cyclamen, which has heart-shaped, silver-veined leaves and pretty blooms in bright crayon colors. It's not hard to grow, if you pay particular attention to its needs.

One is temperature. This is a plant for houses that are kept on the chilly side. It doesn't like heat and tells you -- with yellowing leaves -- if it's too warm. Ideal is 50 to 65 degrees F. (10 to  18 C).

The other important part of cyclamen care is proper watering. The soil needs to be kept moist -- except there's a big "but" attached to that statement. More in a sec.

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Practically everyone who's ever owned a potted cyclamen has come home to find the flowers and leaves dropping over the edge of the container because the soil dried out.

If you're not expecting it, you'll probably think the plant has died. But water it thoroughly, place it away from bright light, and if it hasn't been too long without water (say, more than a day), it'll perk up in a few hours.

When that happens to me, I usually put my hand or Saran Wrap over the soil and dip the plant -- pot, foliage and all -- in a bucket of tepid water. When bubbles stop forming, that means the soil is saturated.

From then on, feel the soil's surface each day with your finger. If it feels barely damp, water.

Now, for the qualification about constantly moist soil. It's best if the soil is kept moist around the edges of the pot but not soaking wet in the middle.

The reason is that cyclamen grows from a  corm (like a tiny bulb) -- which you may be able to see if you look at the base of the plant. It will rot if it stays wet.

I've seen suggestions that you water the plant from the bottom, as African violets sometimes are. I've never had that work well for me -- a cyclamen's pot is usually taller than an African violet's, making it harder for water to reach the top surface.

Besides, watering a cyclamen is one of those things that sounds much harder than it really is. You're not likely to have a problem. (But if you do, now you know why!)

So I'll fall back on the horticulturists' old bromide: Keep the soil moist but not wet. If you have other houseplants, you'll soon find out how long this one typically should go between waterings.

An east window is ideal for cyclamen, which prefers bright light but no sun. As for other care, fertilize twice a month when the plant is in flower. High humidity is nice, if you can provide it, but not strictly necessary until you let the plant wilt frequently.

There's one last thing that's unusual about this plant. Because it grows from a corm, it's a seasonal plant -- just like gladiolus or tulips. That means that when it stops blooming in spring, it's going to go dormant. Then it can be brought back into growth (and flowering) beginning in late summer.

The quick version of how to handle this: When flowering stops, move the plant to a dark place (say, the basement or garage), keep watering just enough that the soil doesn't dry completely, and let the leaves die. Remove them, but continue to water occasionally so the soil is barely moist. In late August, repot the plant, move it to bright light, and begin regular watering again.

Sounds like more work than you want? Just toss the plant when it stops flowering -- or, even better. give it to a green-thumbed friend. By that time, you will have gotten months of enjoyment from it.

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