Cyclamen is a great holiday plant

Red and white cyclamen plants provide great holiday color for this Vermont gardener.

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    Pot-grown florist's cyclamens are produced by the millions, mostly in Europe. In recent years, smaller plants, called Minis and Super Minis, have become popular, as have new flower forms.
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For years I tried to overwinter the poinsettias that I bought for the holidays, faithfully moving pots in and out of the dark until spring. My reward was leggy plants that never bloomed again.

No more. Now my holiday plants of choice are red and white cyclamens.

Cyclamen is among the rare indoor plants that flower for six months and more, and carry on year after year. Like the Energizer Bunny, it just keeps going.

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Rather than any green-thumb effect, their longevity probably is due to the cool temperatures inside our Vermont house in winter, and a summer hiatus under the tall red pines in our yard.

Gardeners in USDA Zones 5 and warmer, if their soil drains well, can grow some of the “hardy” cyclamen species outdoors. All are too tender for northern gardens like mine. We are limited to hybrids of Cyclamen persicum, which are known as florist’s cyclamens and produced for the houseplant market.

Plenty of choices

It’s not a bad limitation. You can find florist’s cyclamens everywhere — garden centers, flower shops, grocery stores, big box stores — but to see the full range of breeders’ creativity, you’ll have to visit a nursery well stocked with indoor plants.

There you’ll find an array of hybrids: five sizes; a range of colors (white to pink, lilac, rose, red, and purple as well as bicolors); plants with flat, ruffled, crested, fringed, and doubled blossoms; and plants with different leaf patterns and coloration.

Flowers are borne well above the silver-marbled, heart-shaped foliage, each on a single stem with five recurved, or backward curving, petals. Cyclamen blooms, as the British garden writer Beverley Nichols observed in "Down the Garden Path," look “like a flight of butterflies, frozen for a single exquisite moment.”

A less artful comparison is to an umbrella that has turned inside out in a heavy wind.

Plants grow from tubers

All cyclamens grow from tough-skinned tubers that store food to use when the plant enters dormancy. The key to growing success is to set the tuber high in a potting mixture that contains plenty of organic matter but isn’t too rich, and to give the plant a cool location where it gets strong but indirect light.

Water enough to keep the soil barely damp, never soggy, and provide a twice-a-month dose of water-soluble fertilizer mixed at half strength.

The definitive book on cyclamens — Christopher Grey-Wilson’s "Cyclamen" — is out of print and used copies are pricey, but the website of the Cyclamen Society provides all the information any gardener might need.

Cyclamen problems are few, but if you run into one, consult the Hortiscope Q&A on cyclamen, run by the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

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Karan Davis Cutler blogs regularly at Diggin’ It. She's a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist and the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee - The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” She now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vt., on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife. To read more by Karan, click here.

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