Late in December, and before I expected such a prompt return, the Cyclamen coum made their re-appearance. The tiny beaks of magenta broke bare earth, buds soon reflexing to flower, sturdy and gathering in number and oblivious, it seemed, to the winter. Of all the flowers that come in these darkest weeks Cyclamen coum seem to have the most stamina, flowering for what must be the best part of three months and, in that time, providing a continuity of hope. During their season, they will see the snowdrops in and out and be companion to witch hazel and wintersweet and be happy to be in the root zone where little else will grow.
The rooty places where the ground is already taken are where they prefer to be. Here they will spend their summer dormancy underground, their tubers kept cool but on the dry side and in perfect stasis. Come the autumn rains their season is activated and, without the competition of summer growth either above or around them, they are free to flower and build up a colony. Choosing the place where they can be allowed to reign is the secret and it has taken a while for me to find the perfect spot under the old hollies. The ground is steeply sloped here and the trees, with their high dense canopy and fibrous roots, make for strong competition.
Cyclamen are always best planted when in growth and not bought as dormant tubers, which have often been kept too dry for too long by the suppliers. Hailing as they do from the Caucasus, Turkey, the Lebanon and Israel Cyclamen coum prefer to be kept on the dry side when dormant, which is easier and less disruptive in a pot. The second advantage to planting when they are in growth is that you can hand-pick for best leaf variation and flower colour. The leaves are as variable as pebbles on a beach. Some, often sold as the ‘Pewter Group’, are almost completely silvered, others are green overlaid with silver, and others almost entirely bottle-green. The foliage, which is the size of a chocolate coin and held close to the ground, doesn’t like competition and you have to be careful not to team them with the leafier Cyclamen hederifolium which is more vigorous and will smother them or with other winter flowering bulbs such as Eranthis, which are prone to leafiness once they start to form seed.
A dozen plants were winkled in where I could find gaps between the holly roots last winter and top-dressed with a mix of gravel and bark to do no more than cover the tubers. I hand-picked my plants for the strong magenta forms, as I prefer the punch of their pure, bright colour to the softening influence of the paler pinks and white, which is what you more often see where they have naturalised. Last year’s plants have all returned with a clutch of seedlings held tight within their crowns. These miniature new plants look true to type (or more-of-less) in terms of leaf marking, but I will see in three years or so if the flowers are true to their magenta parents.
Tania Compton has raved to me about her Cyclamen coum naturalising best in pure gravel and I have hopes that mine will break free from their mound under the holly and venture into the sleeper steps that run alongside, their rubbly treads being the perfect habitat for them to run free. Cyclamen are prolific seeders if they decide they like you and a sweet coating on the seed makes them a delicacy for ants which will carry them quite some distance, so that they often appear in surprising and unexpected places. I have an image of the steps in a few years’ time being somewhere that you have to pick your way down in the winter as though on a glowing magenta runner, threadbare where our footfall influences where the cyclamen appear and where they don’t.