Cyclamen species (Primulaceae)



 Jacob Bobart the Younger's specimen of Cyclamen hederifolium, collected in c. 1660 (Oxford University Herbaria).  Cyclamen persicum from Robert Thornton's Temple of Flora (1807).

Cyclamen have been grown in Britain for centuries, and the genus is listed in the first catalogue to the Oxford Botanic Garden, written by Jacob Bobart, the Garden's first keeper in 1648. He listed two types of cyclamen, Cyclamen rotundi fol[ia] (round-leafed sowbread) and Cyclamen folio oblongo (long-leafed sowbread).

Cyclamen folio oblongo soon became known as Cyclamen autumnale folio angusto; Bobart's son, also called Jacob, collected a herbarium voucher with this name in the 1660s. This specimen has since been recognized as Cyclamen hederifolium, a species with an enormous diversity of leaf shape, which perhaps explains the difficulties early gardeners had in accurately naming the species.

Two main Cyclamen species (Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen coum) are hardy at the Botanic Garden today. Cyclamen hederifolium flowers in late summer, before the leaves have emerged, so the flowers are clearly visible. Cyclamen coum, on the other hand, flowers later in the autumn, alongside its fully emerged leaves.

The genus is native to the area around the Mediterranean Basin, stretching from southern France, Italy and Turkey to northern Africa. The Cyclamen Society recognises 20 Cyclamen species. Each species has its own discrete distribution, although the ranges of some overlap. However, cyclamens do not readily hybridize, and research is being undertaken to understand why. Many wild origin populations are endangered due to over collection by the horticultural trade and climatic change. It is estimated that many species could become extinct in the wild over the next 50 years.

In the Oxford Botanic Garden 12 of the 20 species are grown. Most of these species flower in Garden's Alpine House during the cooler months of the year, producing a riot of shocking pinks and cool whites.

The cyclamens that we buy in shops at Christmas time are usually hybrids of Cyclamen persicum. They have very large flowers and come in a range of colours, from deep red to salmon pink. These plants are not hardy in this country, instead they prefer milder, drier winters. Furthermore, the central heating in our homes can often cause cyclamens problems as daytime temperature should not exceed 20° C. The flowers and leaves of cyclamens naturally die back in spring, and this is the time to reduce the watering and let the tubers dry out. They will remain dormant in a dry greenhouse/ garage until autumn, when they will start to grow again, and hopefully produce flowers for next Christmas.

Further reading

Mathew B et al. (2013) Genus Cyclamen: in science, cultivation, art and culture. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Oxford Botanic Garden (2015) Cyclamen hederifolium.

The Cyclamen Society (2015) Cyclamen species.

Yesson C & Culham A 2006. Phyloclimatic modeling: combining phylogenetics and bioclimatic modeling. Systematic Biology 55: 785-802.

Alison Quantrell