The Casual Gardener: Small but sensational cyclamen

Cyclamen is an autumn favourite that's as at home in Irish gardens as it is on a Mediterranean mountainside

At a time when most plants are winding down and preparing for dormancy, the cyclamen is getting ready to show off. Picture by PA Photo/JupiterImages Corporation

REGULAR readers will recall that it was the late, great Beth Chatto who popularised the ‘right plant, right place' gardening philosophy.

This effectively means observing a plant – or closely related varieties – in their natural habitat. When you understand the wild context in which a particular plant prospers then you are better able to replicate those conditions in your garden, giving the same plant or similar a greater chance of surviving and thriving. It's sound like common sense, but it was an approach on which Chatto built a career and collected countless accolades.

As so many of our common garden plants originate overseas, we'd be lucky to witness a fraction of them growing in their natural environment. So it was with great surprise and enthusiasm that I recently stumbled, almost literally, across one of my autumn favourites, growing happily and in flower on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

Cyclamen will be on sale in every garden centre and nursery at the moment – I've even seen them on garage forecourts, three plants for a tenner. At a time when most plants are winding down and preparing for dormancy, the plucky cyclamen is getting ready to show off during the coldest months of the year. This diminutive tuberous perennial would probably get trampled in a busy summer garden but when there's little else flowering the hardy cyclamen come into their own.

Lying 50-odd miles off the coast of Tuscany, Corsica's climate is typically Mediterranean and much of its flora reflects this. But it is also a mountainous island, with some peaks climbing to more than 2,000 metres, so there are temperate parts, where the vegetation is less typically subtropical.

It was in the middle of the island, at an altitude of some 1,000 metres and in the midst of a beech forest, that I came across the wild cyclamen. Rather than a carpet of flowers, however, it was a lone specimen looking rather forlorn on the forest floor. Perhaps as it was only early September, it was among the first to appear, though it did look very much at home, confirming the text books' claim that cyclamen grows best in woodland setting with its roots resting in humus-rich soil.

The dormant tubers are be triggered into life as the canopy above sheds its leaves, the dainty flowers on thin stems emerging in time to be pollinated by the last of the year's insects.

While not strictly speaking a ground-cover plant, cyclamen are ideal for naturalising beneath a woodland canopy, on banks or in a shady border. Plant them in random patterns alongside other early flowering woodland plants – snowdrops, winter aconites and primroses. They also make a good addition to a autumn-winter container display, as along as it's not too exposed.

These autumn-flowering cyclamen are Cyclamen hederifolium, the second part of its name a reference to the triangular, ivy-like leaves means having leaves the plant bears after flowering.

The best cyclamen to start with are the those that come with the Royal Horticultural Society AGM (Award of Garden Merit) stamp of approval. Cyclamen hederifolium has comparatively large flowers in various shades of pink, with marbled foliage and a tendency to self-seed freely.

The later flowering (or is January early flowering?) Cyclamen coum is the species from which many great cultivars have been developed. Dark green leaves marked with silver and white, this hardy-as-they-come plant bears pink or magenta flowers from January to March, surviving in the severest weather.

Cyclamen purpurascens has fragrant pink flowers borne with the heart-shaped, shiny, dark green and silvery mottled leaves, flowering from mid-late summer.

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