Hardy Cyclamen is not your florist’s Cyclamen, but a cold-hardy perennial with a long lifespan. It grows as drifts in the dry and humus soils found underneath tree canopies, and it has done well in places as cold as northern New York, where the winter temperatures have dropped to -20°F.
These charming flowers bloom about 6 to 8 inches above the leaf litter, ranging in color from near-red through pink and into white, sometimes with contrasting colors around the nose. Leaves in various shapes have beautiful markings and add unusual interest to the floor beneath trees, their favorite spot. Sometimes flowers appear separately from the leaves and sometimes the appearances overlap—it depends on the species.
However, Hardy Cyclamen is often at its best when least expected. Again, depending on the species you choose to grow, the prime display occurs around October, during the winter months of December and January, or during the early spring months of February and March. Exact bloom time depends on the species, the altitude, and when snowmelt occurs.
Best all-around among the hardy Cyclamen is purpurascens, a species that stays above ground for nearly the full year. Next year’s flowers begin to emerge around late summer, just after last season’s foliage goes dormant. Summer is the Cyclamen’s normal dormancy season, but the pause for purpurascens is brief.
Purpurascens flowers in various shades of light to dark pink arrive in late summer, standing by themselves, followed by new foliage a few months later. Leaves can be green, but they are often marked with silver or pewter splashes—sometimes they are completely awash in silver. The plant is remarkably cold-hardy, outlasting even deep snow drifts.
In the wild, hederifolium is a woodland plant, but it can handle a wide range of cultivated shade gardens as long as the soil drains well and has a humus-y quality. Of all the hardy Cyclamen, this one tolerates partial shade the best. In Pennsylvania it can begin to flower in late summer, but the prime display occurs in autumn itself, usually around October. Hederifolium also happens to have the hardiest cold rating of the three types, with leaves disappearing into the snow and reappearing once it melts.
After a few years, a drift of the charming leaves results, with some changing shapes and patterns as the loose groundcover evolves. Although the drift grows slowly, Cyclamen tubers have a very long lifespan and lie just below the surface.
Flowers are various shades of pink and white, and the leaf shapes and patterns vary tremendously, from ivy-like to arrowheads to thin stilettos. Markings go from plain green to completely silver, with wildly ranging patterns in between them. All drifts show this natural variation of leaf form.
If hederifolium celebrates the autumn, coum joyously greets the spring. It brings those trademark Cyclamen flowers and leaves to the early spring garden. In a Zone 5 bed coum flowers from November to February, so it follows a track very similar to Hellebore—the same soil under the same trees, with flowers coming at about the same time on the calendar. Coum should definitely be planted where the snow disappears first to enjoy the earliest displays.
Leaves are generally glossy and heart-shaped. There is less variation among the leaves, but more among the flowers. When the snow melts back, it reveals small clouds of rose, magenta, pink, and white that float about six inches above the very cold soil. Even when coum is out-of-bloom, the silvery-mottled flowers make a great groundcover.
Hardy Cyclamen is found in the wild mountains and coasts along southern Europe, from France through Italy and Greece and into Turkey. These plants can be found as far north as the Black Sea and the Balkan Islands. Their evolutionary trick is that they bloom when very little else is available, and they achieve this feat by going dormant at some point in the summer.
Although they can handle all sorts of abuse from snow and ice, they are vulnerable to puddles and soaks. This is why they grow best under the generous shade and very dry soils found among the roots of trees. Those roots vacuum out the moisture from the soil, just the way Hardy Cyclamen likes it.
Because it gets its footing and drink from the leaf litter that accumulates, the Cyclamen tuber needs to be right at the surface of the soil, nearly visible, rather than buried deep like a Dutch bulb. As a result, if clay soil is a fact of life, Hardy Cyclamen will do better in raised beds, rockeries or beds prepared with drainage. Soggy toes in April will do it in faster than any frigid winter blast.
Creek Hill Nursery sells three species of Hardy Cyclamen in trays of 32-count.