Grow a dainty winter treat
Cyclamen coum are among winter’s prettiest tubers. Val Bourne picks the best
Cyclamen coum are such jaunty little plants, topped by an almost-square arrangement of five slightly twisted, swept-back petals in shades of white and pink. Most have a deep-magenta nose, although there are unmarked, pure-white forms. The rounded leaves appear in autumn, then the flowering stems lie in wait, folded over the tuber in readiness, before the flowers open between December and March. Hailing from cooler places in lightly wooded areas of Bulgaria, Turkey, the Caucasus and Iran, growing from sea level up to 2,150m (7,054ft), C. coum is hardy and resilient. It has nudged through snow in early January in my own garden. Plant it in a bright but shady position, perhaps on the sunnier side of a deciduous springflowering shrub, because this high-altitude bulbous plant doesn’t thrive in deep shade. The sun must warm the soil in winter to promote early flower, but C. coum doesn’t like too much of a bake so the soil should still be friable and cool in summer.
This month you’ll find potfuls of C. coum in garden centres but this diminutive 10cm (4in) tall plant shouldn’t be confused with the much showier and less hardy winter bedding cyclamen. The foliage of these seed-raised springflowering tubers varies from plain green to dull pewter or a shinier silver with endless variations between. The flowers also vary and some nurseries sell several different forms including an all-white called ‘Golan Heights’ and vivid magenta shades. ‘Maurice Dryden’ (named after alpine gardener Cath Dryden’s husband) has dark-nosed white flowers and green-edged pewter leaves. I acquired my own plant from Cath and Maurice in the early 1990s and, though it’s recommended for an alpine house, it has survived for years under the canopy of an old apple tree. Some seedlings produced blush-pink (rather than white) flowers, but the excellent foliage has always reappeared. Peter Moore’s Tilebarn Nursery raised lots of different cyclamen from wild-collected seed. ‘Tilebarn Elizabeth’ (named after Peter’s wife) is very long-lived and its pewter foliage sets off the bright pink flowers really well. Peter used to sprinkle all his spare cyclamen seeds on the sunnier side of an enormous conifer hedge and the spring carpet was spectacular in February. Cyclamen spread by setting seeds and if you plant several small potfuls you’ll have a swathe of C. coum within five years. Ants help spread the seeds (perhaps not quite where you want them!) as they roll them around in an attempt to lick off the sticky coating. However, seedlings in the wrong place can be moved inspring and quickly replanted because these small tubers resent drying out at any stage. The seed pods, resembling small purses, are held on stems that coil tightly in dry weather then straighten when moist, shaking out the seeds as they unfurl. You can collect the large seeds and raise your own plants – or let nature take its course. Don’t mix the conker-sized tubers of spring-f lowering C. coum with those of autumn-f lowering C. hederifolium because the latter produces tubers the size of dinner plates and will smother the much smaller C. coum. In her excellent book Bulb, Anna Pavord likens this relationship to pairing a bantamweight boxer with a heavyweight!
EARLY RISERS The sweet pink and white flowers of diminutive Cyclamen coum belie their hardy nature and will gradually spread to create a swathe of colour