Q. Is it true that there are kinds of cyclamen that will grow outdoors in our climate? I love the ones grown as houseplants and would enjoy having them as garden plants, too.
A. There are two species of cyclamen that overwinter in protected locations in Western Pennsylvania that I have grown successfully -- Cyclamen coum and C. hederifolium. The main secret to growing these gems is very sharp drainage, especially when they are dormant. All grow from small tubers that easily succumb to rot when the surrounding soil remains too moist for too long. Both species are hardy in USDA zones 5-9.
Cyclamen coum, or hardy cyclamen, is native to Asia Minor and southeastern Europe, where it is found in shady areas, often mingled with tree roots and rocks. The glossy dark green heart-shaped leaves appear in fall, often highlighted by silvery markings. Flowers bloom late winter to early spring in colors ranging from white to rosy-pink with the strongly reflexed petals reminiscent of the familiar florist's cyclamen, but far more delicate. Both flowers and foliage are dormant through the summer.
Cyclamen hederifolium, also known as hardy cyclamen, is native from southern Europe to Turkey, growing in woodlands as well as on rocky cliffs. It blooms in fall with pink or pink-tinged-white flowers that have a deep magenta eye and strongly reflexed petals. The handsome foliage begins to grow as the blooms fade, with ivy-shaped, often silver-and-white mottled leaves that persist through winter. Both flowers and foliage are dormant through the summer.
The hardy cyclamens can make very attractive ground covers in woodland gardens or under trees as an alternative to pachysandra and periwinkle. Hardy cyclamen are at their best in part shade and humusy, evenly moist, yet well-drained soil. However, they grow well in average garden soil as long as it drains well. They are well adapted to dry shade situations, such as the north side of a building or under established trees. These delicate but tough beauties grow 4-6 inches tall, each tuber producing a clump that can spread 12-18 inches in diameter.
Cyclamen species grow from a round tuber that grows in diameter over time but does not produce offsets. Old tubers of certain species can grow to a foot or more in diameter. Fibrous roots may arise from the top, sides or bottom of the tuber, depending on the species. Tubers should be planted just below the soil surface.
The name "cyclamen" comes from the Greek kyklos, meaning circular, because of the way the seed stalk twists as the seed ripens. The twisting action pulls the seed closer to contact with the soil, where it has the best chance of growing. Hardy cyclamen often self-seed in the garden, especially where conditions suit them, but are never invasive.
Send questions to Sandy Feather by email at email@example.com or by regular mail c/o Penn State Extension, 400 N. Lexington Ave., Pittsburgh 15208.