Once the nights start to cool down, cyclamen begin to makes their appearance in garden centers and florist shops. The most common species of cyclamen in the retail space is called Florist’s Cyclamen, and comes from the wild species Cyclamen persicum. They are popular gift plants, occasional house plants for the truly dedicated, and winter landscape plants for those in mild climates. In this month’s plant profile, we detail the care of Florist’s Cyclamen in all three situations. There are other species of cyclamen such as Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen coum that are pretty much only grown in the landscape, especially for an alpine or naturalized garden look.
Florist’s Cyclamen have been bred into a range of sizes. The tiny ones can be as small as 3 inches across, while the largest of them can get to be closer to 20” across. The flower size usually varies accordingly with tiny delicate flowers on the smaller types, and much larger flowers on the larger size plants. Breeders are always trying to put larger flowers on smaller plants for the most impact. These cyclamen have dark green, heart-shaped leaves that often have intricately detailed markings. The cup-shaped, bold colored flowers pop up above the foliage and come in striking colors of reds, burgundies, purples, pinks, whites, and even bicolors.
Florist’s Cyclamen can often be found in cute pots in grocery stores and florist shops. These plants are often given as gifts and used as centerpieces for tables, or used to decorate entryways. Many people treat this style of plant as disposable. The plant will hold its flowers for three to four weeks with minimal care, until eventually (usually due to improper light and watering) the plant eventually collapses and it is thrown out. If this is your style, and all you want to do is keep it looking nice for a few weeks, the best practice is to water it sparingly. Just keep the soil evenly moist, but not soaking, and try not to get water on the crown of the plant. Also, keep it away from heater vents - this plant likes colder temperatures.
If you are interested in keeping these plants around long term, or if you live in an area that is mild enough to grow them in the landscape, read on!
Growing as house plant
To keep cyclamen as a house plant, you will need to put it in a pot with drainage. Sometimes, the cute gift pots don’t have holes in them to let the water out. It will be nearly impossible to keep a cyclamen alive in a pot like that long term, so you will need to repot it. Use potting mix that is intended for flowers or house plants. Be careful not to bury the corm, or the little bulb/tuber that sticks out above the soil line. It will likely rot if you bury the crown of the plant.
Cyclamen need moderate bright light. Cyclamen are winter blooming plants, so they like what is considered winter light. It’s a bit hard to quantify, but imagine standing outside on a bright winter day. The sun just has a different quality than doing the same on a bright summer day. An east facing window is usually the best for cyclamen house plants.
These plants prefer cooler temperatures. The ideal temperature for cyclamen is 68 degrees, which is a little cooler than most people keep their house. When placing the plant, it’s best to do so in a cooler room rather than the one with the fireplace. Again, an east facing window helps avoid the afternoon sun. Keep it away from heater vents, the hot dry air blowing over the plant will make it very unhappy.
Cyclamen is an exception to the “don’t fertilize in winter” rule. These flowers are winter blooming, so this is their growing season. If you are successful keeping your plant alive for more than a year, give it a tiny taste of fertilizer once or twice over the winter. Use a well balanced fertilizer meant for houseplants, and use a quarter or an eighth the recommended rate. Allowing a cyclamen to grow too quickly with too much fertilizer can result in very soft growth that is way more susceptible to diseases like fusarium, and the plant will just collapse one day.
This is where it gets tricky for cyclamen. These plants have a narrow band of moisture that makes them happy. They like an even, lightly moist soil. Do not soak these plants. They don’t really like dry down cycles either. Never water up to soaking, and never let them wilt. This usually requires you to check the soil every three to four days. You will find that if you do let your cyclamen plant wilt from lack of water more than a couple of times, it often stops recovering and is simply done for. If it wilted because of rot from being over watered, it is also done for. Once rot gets into the corm, it isn’t usually possible to stop.
Pests & Diseases
These plants are susceptible to fusarium wilt. If you find your plant has turned yellow and wilted, it’s a goner unfortunately. Just toss the whole thing and its pot so you don’t infect your next house plant. The flowers can sometimes get botrytis. If this happens, you can remove the infected flowers. Try to improve your watering to avoid it in the future.
There are a few pests that might make an appearance. Mites and thrips are the most common. You can avoid both of these by keeping the humidity up and avoiding hot, dry rooms. This isn’t too hard when it comes to cyclamen, because the plants don’t like hot dry conditions either. Insecticidal soaps are often safe to use indoors, but are not particularly effective against either thrips or mites. If your infestation is bad, you might want to discard the whole pot. Most products for those particular pests are not safe for indoor use. Make sure to always follow instructions carefully on any pesticides. This is especially true indoors.
The good news is that by growing them indoors, they are less likely to get the pests in the first place. Just try to make sure any plants you bring into the house are free from pests and diseases already.
Cyclamen flowers last a long time, but each flower will eventually flop over while more come up around it. These flopped over flowers don’t look the greatest. To remove them, firmly grasp the flower stalk near the base and remove with a twisting motion. Clean up any dead leaves the same way. As it gets towards summer, you will notice the plant dropping more flowers and leaves and producing fewer and fewer to replace them. This plant goes dormant over the summer. If you are unsure if your plant is dead or going dormant, take a look at the corm. If the corm is plump and firm, then the plant is dormant. If it is shriveled or rotted, then the plant is dying. Water less and less, allowing the soil to dry out. Over the summer months, occasionally dribble a few tablespoons of water to keep it from drying out entirely, but don’t give it a true watering.
Florist’s Cyclamen are not truly frost tolerant. They can withstand a light frost, but they do best in the landscape in milder climates. Florist’s Cyclamen are often treated as annuals in places with mild climates, like many areas of California. They look lovely as a mass planting along walkways, and they have lovely color during a time when not much else is blooming.
When planting them in the ground, make sure to leave the corm, or the bulb/tuber, peaking out above the soil. Burying the corm will cause it to rot.
There are several different sizes of plants to choose from for landscape planting. The smaller flowers are cute and delicate, looking better up close. The small flowers hold up better to the elements, especially rain. They don’t hold as much water so they don’t get botrytis as easily as the larger flowers. However, the larger flowers are much showier and generally look better, especially at a distance. Consider your aesthetics, the distance you will be viewing the planting, and your level of commitment to keeping botrytis in check after rainy weather.
Cyclamen prefer cool weather and do well in USDA zones 9-11. They do not tend to survive the summer in the ground in places that get very hot, but places with milder climates will find that they go dormant for a while and do come back in the fall. They can tolerate brief periods of frost, but not much more than that.
Cyclamen like bright, low-intensity light. A great place to plant cyclamen is under a deciduous tree. In the fall when the days are still warm, the dappled shade protects the cyclamen from too much light and heat. As it gets colder, the leaves of the tree fall off and the plant can get more of the bright winter light, but without the summer intensity.
As mentioned above in the house plant section, cyclamen like an even, lightly moist soil. They do not like to dry down, and they do not like to be soggy. Finding this happy medium is key. Try to avoid overhead watering. Getting drops of water in the leaves, flowers, and crown of the plant can cause fungal diseases and rot. Setting them up on drip irrigation is best, but in many places it rains over the winter and therefore some overhead watering is unavoidable.
When planting as an annual, you don’t really need to fertilize them. They have enough stored energy in the corm to look good through winter. If you live in an area where they come back every year, you can provide them a little bit of fertilizer, any well balanced one will do. Apply the fertilizer in the winter. They are winter growers and bloomers so this is when they need the extra energy, not the summer like most other plants.
Pests & Diseases
When it is still warm during the day, they can get mites and thrips. For outdoor plants, there are many pesticide options for these pests. Pick your level of comfort with these products and be aware of their different levels toxicity. These pests can be difficult to get rid of. Always follow manufacturer instructions carefully. The good news is that when it gets cold and wet, these pests tend to die off.
With the cold and wet comes botrytis. The flowers of cyclamen are particularly susceptible to botrytis when they get wet. Try not to overhead water, and realize that after a heavy rain, you may have some flower clean up to do.
On the flip side, in the warm part of the fall, they can get fusarium. If you notice your plants turn yellow and wilt down, get rid of the plant immediately - there is no saving it, and you don’t want the infection to spread.
You don’t have to, but the plants will look better if you remove the spent flowers by grasping near the base of the flower stalk and removing it with a quick twisting motion.
Cyclamen look lovely at a distance in the landscape, or up close in a container on your dining room table. They bring a pop of color into a season that can otherwise be pretty drab as far as flowers go. They have special requirements, but not TOO onerous, and they look best during a time when most people have way less garden chores than normal. Consider a few this year in your house, or in your yard - or better yet, try both!