No difficulty in choice this month: the cyclamen, in all its varieties, is the outstanding plant of October. If asked to choose my own favourite flowering plant, I’d be torn between the cyclamen or the clematis (in all its varieties – except those ghastly over-bred double things), but at this time of year, there’s no question.
They began to appear, in my own garden and at the Botanics, at the beginning of September – possibly a sign of a long autumn, or an Indian summer, or a hard winter? They are in their full glory now, much less susceptible to rain damage than the autumn crocuses (colchicums), which have been fantastic this year, but sadly have been flattened in the last few days.
The word ‘cyclamen’ (Latin, ‘cyclaminus’; Greek, κυκλάμινος) is thought to derive from the Greek word for ‘circle’, κυκλος, referring to the round shape of the tuber. In many languages, including English, the colloquial term refers to pig food: ‘sowbread’ (first reference in OED is from 1550: raises the interesting question of when the plant was first introduced here?), French ‘pain de pourceau’, Italian ‘pan porcino’, Dutch ‘varkensbrood’. The tubers are poisonous to humans, but in Lebanese cooking the leaves are used as a wrapping for food, like vine leaves for dolmades.
The wild form of cyclamen (originally placed in Primulaceae, later reclassified as Myrsinaceae, and now back among the Primulaceae in the sub-family Myrsinoideae) has over twenty known species, many of them specific to quite small geographical areas, as their binomial names reveal: africanum, balearicum, cilicium, colchicum, coum, creticum, cyprium, graecum, libanoticum, persicum, rhodium, and (most recently discovered) somalense.
Other names refer to their appearance: elegans, hederifolium (‘ivy-leaved’), purpurascens, parviflorum, repandum, intaminatum (‘undefiled’, because they lack the darker colour on the ‘nose’ common in most other species), and mirabile, possibly the most perfect and delicate of all. Only one is named for a person: C. rohlfsianum was discovered in the Libyan mountains by Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs in 1879.
A huge number of ‘florists’’ varieties have also emerged, with larger leaves and flowers, and a greater variety of colours (and variegations) within the white to deep purplish red spectrum of the genus. These are sold as indoor plants in autumn and winter, but in my opinion, they can’t match the miraculous delicacy of their ancestors.
The plants are native to the wider Mediterranean area, from the Balearic islands to Iran (with the one species, mentioned above, growing in Somalia). Like a large number of Mediterranean plants, they produce leaves in autumn, but lose their foliage and die right back in summer. (In cooler climate of the UK, the leaves don’t always die back, and the concern for gardeners is that the tubers get baked enough.)
Not all species flower in the autumn, but those that do are very much more noticeable, usually appearing before the leaves at a time when other colours are receding. C. hederifolium is one that does, and as it reproduces very readily, it is probably the most common naturalised cyclamen in the UK. Seeds are contained in a berry-like pod, which in some species just drops to the ground and in others is gently lowered by the stem curling up like a spring. The seeds are distributed in the wild by ants, who are attracted to the sticky covering of the seeds, eat that and leave the seeds behind: thus clumps and colonies arise close to the parent plant.
Cyclamen tubers can be very long-living: I have a pair indoors which I was given years ago and which still faithfully flower each year with minimal attention. Outdoors, they can grown to an enormous size before eventually decaying; I had one 10 cm across, and C. hederifolium regularly reaches 24 cm after a few years. If not grubbed up by greedy pigs, the cyclamen is mostly threatened by the Gothic moth (Naenia typica), which is less spectacular than might hope from its name: its larva eats cyclamen leaves as part of a very broad diet of low-growing leaves.
I have tried to collect and propagate seed from my own plants (with no success so far), but the ants are clearly doing their work, as I have new tiny seedlings in the garden every year: they flower after about three years of growth.
The beauty of the flowers speaks for itself, but the leaves are almost as fascinating: the shapes and patterning are almost infinitely variable, and I assume that they are unique (like fingerprints). Vegetative propagation via the tubers is difficult, as most species do not have multiple growing points (unlike e.g. the potato), so whether clones would show identical leaf patterns is not yet clear.
The cyclamen in art is not as common as the rose or the tulip – not least, of course, because the flower does not lend itself to being picked and put into a still life. This beautiful sheet of botanical studies by Hans Simon Hiltzbecher (1610–71) in the State Museum of Denmark shows C. purpurascens and hederifolium.
Below is a plate from the Hortus Romanus juxta systema Tournefortianum by Giorgio Bonelli (1724–82). The book’s title refers to the classification system of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708), the botanist and traveller who first coined the word ‘herbarium’, and whose posthumously published Relation d’un voyage du Levant (1717, English translation 1718) is remarkable for his observations not only on botany but on history and antiquities, and on the lives of the people among whom he travelled.
But to appreciate these wonderful plants, you don’t need art: you just need to get down on the ground, or bend over a sand-bench in an alpine house (preferably with a hand-lens) and gaze at their infinite variety.