STYLE

'Hardy' cyclamens are fall and winter beauties, dainty but tough

10/14/2014 08:47 EDT | Updated 12/14/2014 05:59 EST
For the past few weeks, dainty pink or white butterflies have been hovering above the bare soil in some of my clay flowerpots. They're not really butterflies, actually: They are cyclamen blossoms held aloft on thin flower stalks.

These are not the cyclamens you typically find offered in florist shops, those plants with bold flowers and lush foliage. My cyclamens are among the few species of so-called "hardy" cyclamens (Cyclamen hederifolium, for example). They differ from florists' cyclamens not only in their diminutive leaves and flowers but also in their ability to live outdoors year round, even in cold climates.

My cyclamen plants are still leafless, the flowers being their first sign of life as they awaken from their summer dormancy. These blossoms will hover in place for weeks to come.

THE SHOW GOES ON

Even after the blossoms finally fade and drop, the show will not be over. Soon to begin is the leafy show. The leaves are heart-shaped, but rounded rather than pointed at the end, with silvery mottling painted over the dark green background. The silvery design differs from one plant to the next.

The leaves last for weeks, perhaps all winter if temperatures are not too frigid. So there's really no time of year when the plant is unattractive. It's just that in summer, when the plants go dormant, the plant has nothing at all to show — no leaves or flowers.

Hardy cyclamens are as easy to grow as florists' cyclamens and need pretty much the same conditions: perfectly drained soil and shallow planting. Tubers should sit with their tops just slightly below soil level. My plants have flowered indoors at east windows and outdoors on the shaded, north side of the house.

GETTING STARTED

Hardy cyclamens are generally available from specialist nurseries (such as Sunfarms, www.sunfarm.com), but once you have some plants, new ones are easy enough to propagate. Sometime after bloom, surely while the plants are dormant, you'll note seed capsules, each about the size of a small marble, lying on the soil surface. These seed capsules, like the flowers, are still tethered to the soil, this time by stalks now coiled like springs.

The seeds would likely self-sow, but to multiply your holdings more deliberately, pop the seeds out of the dry capsules. Books and seed catalogues offer elaborate instructions for germinating cyclamen seeds, detailing planting depth as well as sequential requirements for both warm and cool temperatures. I've followed such directives and gotten the seeds to germinate. Then again, I've also just sowed the seeds shallowly in pots, kept the soil moist and waited — eventually they seem to germinate no matter what you do.

What is important is to keep the young seedlings growing continuously through their first year. They're not old enough for their summer dormancy until their second year, at which time they generally start to flower.

You may wonder why, if I'm growing hardy cyclamens, they are in flowerpots rather than in the ground with other hardy plants. The reason is that I have not yet decided just where to plant out these delicate looking beauties.

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