It’s that time of year in the Midwest -- not quite spring, still a little dreary, cold and wet -- when I like to stroll through the local garden centers in search of flowering plants.
I long for indoor color, and it’s the cyclamen with its delicate nodding flowers -- blown-back petals that look like a troupe of airborne fairies dressed in their finery -- that adds an elegant touch to the deep window ledge in our kitchen.
Garden centers and other stores generally offer cyclamen from fall through late winter, but in recent years they've been available longer, thanks to refrigerated trucks and cooler greenhouses.
Growing six to 12 inches tall with flowers held high over the leaves, cyclamen are especially beautiful when several pots are pulled into service as one long centerpiece down a dining room table or clustered on a kitchen counter or island.
Although breeders have created new varieties with fancy names to match their ruffled petals and silvery or marbled leaves, most stores simply label plants according to the flower color -- pink, white, rose, violet or red. Expect to spend from about $5 to $23 for plants.
Cyclamen hails from the Mediterranean, and many of the 20 species are native to Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and parts of North Africa and western Asia. They grow in beech-tree woodlands, Alpine meadows, and rocky areas -- a clue to their need for well-drained soil.
They are tuberous perennials in their native habitats but most of them sold here -- Cyclamen persicum, also called the florist’s cyclamen -- are grown as tender houseplants.
There is a perennial cyclamen that can be grown outdoors in Zones 5 to 7 -- Cyclamen hederifolium -- which you’ll find online and at some garden centers.
Chilly temperatures a must
Cyclamens like it on the cool side, preferring temperatures no more than 68 degrees F. (20 C) during the day and down to 50 F. (10 C) at night. That’s not always easy to achieve in our super-heated, dry homes. However, an enclosed porch, unheated sunroom, or a bright, cool basement window could serve as that spot.
Plants bloom for two months or more, but you can extend the bloom time by removing spent flowers, pinching and pulling them from the base of the stems. Skip using scissors because cutting causes the stems to die back and may delay future flowers.
Cyclamen generally do not need repotting, but if you choose to repot, use a good potting mix and place the tuber close to the soil surface so that it’s slightly exposed. This prevents water from collecting in the tissues and rotting the tuber.
I learned the hard way that it’s easy to kill a cyclamen by providing too much water or by pouring water directly into the crown of the plant. Watering is tricky. It’s best to take the pot to the sink, water thoroughly, and then let the excess drain away for about 30 minutes before placing it back on the saucer.
The plants go dormant for summer
When warm weather approaches in May, my cyclamen plants will need a rest -- they must have a dormant period. The leaves turn yellow, and flower production stops.
When that happens, I gradually reduce watering and place the pots in a cool spot for a few months, where they’ll remain dry. The plant’s tuber has stored the necessary moisture and nutrients so you need not worry. When sprouts appear in late summer, move the pot to a bright window and begin watering again.
All of the cyclamen’s plant parts are said to cause severe discomfort if ingested, so keep plants and tubers away from children and pets.
Nina Koziol gardens on a deer-infested acre southwest of Chicago where her beds and borders are designed for butterflies, hummingbirds, and other wildlife. She teaches classes at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Find more on her website, This Garden Cooks. Her previous post at Diggin' It was about Gardening for birds and wildlife.