The earliest to surprise you in the spring and a delicacy for pigs

The earliest to surprise one on the flowerbed in spring is the cyclamen!
Snowdrops normally start at the end of March, but brave cyclamens show their flowers as early as in the middle of March … and this year too!

Image 1. Eastern sowbread (Cyclamen coum) on the display of low-growing bulbous and cormous plants on 19 March.

A popular indoor cyclamen growing in the yard in Estonia?

A well-known indoor plant, Persian cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) will not survive the winter outdoors, and even its name is e reference to southern origin. Still, blooming eastern sowbread (Cyclamen coum), Caucasian cyclamen (Cyclamen coum subsp. caucasicum) and the false Iberian cyclamen (Cyclamen pseudibericum) can cope with our climate in the spring while the ivy-leaved cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) and Cyclamen purpurascens survive the autumn. The species that require a bit more care are Cyclamen abchasicum, Cyclamen elegans, Cyclamen repandum (spring sowbread) and the autumn variety Cyclamen cilicium.   Cyclamens, relatives of Primulae, have over 20 species and subspecies.

Which one is the earliest bloomer?

It is the eastern sowbread (C. coum).

The plant’s Latin name Cyclamen comes from the word kyklos, which stands for a circle or round shape. The plant’s leaves and its corm are round, and the pedicel of most species spirals after blooming.

Eastern sowbread is an exemplary illustration of this description. Its leaves 2—8 cm in length are kidney-shaped or round, dark-green with sometimes a lighter pattern on the dorsal side and red underside. The leaves of eastern cyclamen and other cyclamen species shoot out in the autumn, pass the winter and dry by the end of spring or early summer. The flower is also almost round. The nose of the flower of all species faces downwards, five petals are bent outward and connected at the base into a short cup.  The flowers of cyclamens growing in Estonia are pink and tiny, about 1—2.5 cm in diameter. What distinguishes the eastern cyclamen, which grows to be 5—10 cm tall, is a dark-purple spot at the base of the petal with 2 white to pink ‘eye-like’ spots in it.

Image 2. The flowers of the white variety of ivy-leaved cyclamen accentuated with the fallen
flowers of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia).
Image 3. Eastern sowbread in the Tallinn Botanical Garden in March 2017.

The primary habitat of cyclamens is the Mediterranean as well as forest-covered mountainous regions of Central Europe. In the garden, these plants will need a warm shaded or semi-shaded area with very good draining.  A relatively shaded corner of an alpine garden or a spot shaded by a foliage tree, where fallen leaves would protect the plants in the autumn, would be perfect. The cyclamen’s corm is the modified first stem node, so it should not be planted too deep: a couple of centimeters of soil is enough.

The best variety for growing in Estonia is the ‘Caucasian’ subspecies of the eastern cyclamen (C. coum subsp. caucasicum). Its tiny cuspidate petals have 2 pink ‘eye-like’ spots at the base, and its ovoid or heart-shaped leaves are also cuspidate and usually lacerated. It grows well in the same conditions as the eastern cyclamen.

Which other cyclamen species can be grown in Estonia?

The false Iberian cyclamen (C. pseudibericum) also blooms in the spring. This plant, botanically close to the eastern cyclamen, normally opens its pink or purple flowers in late May. The flowers of the plant 10—25 cm in height are relatively large and fragrant with a white zone at the end of the nose. The leaves are dark-green and silver, and the corms have a cork-like cracked surface. This rather cold-sensitive species needs to be covered for the winter.

Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen purpurascens bloom in the autumn.

The leaves of the ivy-leaved cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) are similar to ivy (Hedera) leaves and shoot out in the middle of the blooming period in September. The pink petals of this plant that grows 10—20 cm tall have auricles curved outwards and a darker V-shaped spot. It is a very gratifying plant because dozens of not hundreds of flowers can shoot out from one corm! The white subspecies of the ivy-leaved cyclamen (C. hederifolium f. albiflorum) also displays wonderful small shrubs full of white flowers. In the botanical garden, you can find these white flowers on the raised flower bed of the front square next to the subtropical greenhouse.

Image 4. You may only take a photo of this wild ivy-leaved cyclamen growing in Bosnia. The autumn-flowering species photographed in September 2017 by Jaanika Altraja. Image 5. If the necessary conditions are provided, the plant is strong and healthy and does not fear the snow. In the photo: an eastern cyclamen plant in the botanical garden in March 2017.

Good to know

The cyclamen corm, rich in alkaloids, can grow until it is a hundred years old. All species are poisonous, and their leaves are used for making pest-poison. The only animal which is not affected by the plant’s poison is the pig. They like munching on cyclamen corms, so the names for cyclamens in various languages often refer to pigs in some way. For example, swinebread and sowbread in English, Saubrot in German, pain de porceau in French, varkensbrood in Danish, and even the Japanese word manjū refers to a ‘delicacy’.

Good luck on growing your cyclamens and beware of pigs!

Text: Marit Mäesaar