By Karen Andrews
They say that you should never judge a book by its cover. Walter C. Blasdale’s ‘Cyclamen persicum: Its Natural and Cultivated Forms’ is an unassuming, concise volume that normally sits in the restricted access section of the University of Reading Library. In an age of print or e-books laden with full-colour, blousy photographs, this 1952 edition looks puritanically modest with its black and white prints. It is a gem – just like the flower it describes.
The bright natural colours of Christmas Cyclamen stand out from the artificial and drab advent competition in stores. The nodding heads of flowers and buds work their charm. The heart-shaped leaves single it out as a perfect Christmas gift for loved-ones. Dissect the flower ̶ as botanists have the unfortunate knack of doing no matter how pretty the specimen ̶ and you discover a set of 5 reflexed, twisted petals. They often have dark markings at the base.
The reader is still on page one when Walter Blasdale reveals that Cyclamen persicum is masquerading under the wrong name. The natural plant origin of today’s hybrids did not come from Persia (modern-day Iran). This misnomer has continued from early cultivation by gardeners in the early seventeenth century.
Nor has Cyclamen persicum contented itself with a single name over the centuries. Other specific aliases complicate the story: antiochenum, orientale, byzantium and e monte libani. Cyclamen was introduced several times from various habitats under different names to muddy the waters even further.
The Indian deception seems to be the biggest of all. Even the notable Linnaeus was deceived. He wrote of a Cyclamen native to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). The name Cyclamen indicum or Indian Cyclamen circulated between botanists before being abandoned as false.
Other names have come and gone too. Cyclamen latifolium and Cyclamen vernale lasted for a time before being attributed to Cyclamen persicum. Cyclamen aleppicum was described as different from C. persicum because of the ‘absence of its usual red patches near the base of pure white petals’ (p18). However, this characteristic was not considered worthy of a new name. Then, in 1939, Glasau ‘found the diploid chromosome number of this form to be 54 instead of 48 of the usual form’ (p18). Cyclamen aleppicum was revived as separate from C. persicum.
Completely confused? I haven’t finished with names yet… Cyclamen is also known by the common name of Sowbread. Pigs used to eat Cyclamen corms. They have a ‘purgative’ or laxative effect on humans. In the past, they were prescribed for a wide variety of ailments nonetheless (p11).
Where are Cyclamen’s true roots? Where does it rest its corms today?
Change of family
Persian Cyclamen or Cyclamen persicum is the plant that we recognise in its cultivated forms in stores at Christmas. Walter Blasdale placed Cyclamen in the Primulaceae in 1952. However, Cyclamen was not content with the constant name-changing. It decided to indulge in some flower bed-swapping to Myrsinaceae after Blasdale’s time. The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG III) ordered it to return to its Primulaceae family in 2009.
Cyclamen are supported by their corms underground. Unlike gladioli corms or those of its relatives, the corms do not dry up and regenerate annually. Around half of Cyclamen species, including Cyclamen persicum, are ‘distinguished by a layer of cork cells’. As a result, they are able ‘to develop both leaf-bearing sprouts and roots from various points on the corm surface’ – a characteristic not shared by other Cyclamen species (p20).
Not in flower?
We sought out Cyclamen outside and in the Alpine House during the University of Reading’s recent MSc Plant Diversity field to RHS Wisley. Cyclamen persicum was not in flower there. It became apparent that hybrid Cyclamen persicum are forced to flower early for Christmas by horticulturalists. Cyclamen persicum can be forced to dispense with its first period of dormancy unlike the rest of its species. A rest period remains important in later years (p30).
Blasdale observes that seedlings in all Cyclamen species show unusual features for dicots. Firstly, a corm forms before any other activity. The first leaf immediately takes on the form and function of a true leaf. The author explains these peculiarities by commenting on how Cyclamen persicum would develop in its natural environment. The flowers appear in winter or early spring. The seeds do not ripen until early summer when moisture is insufficient for germination. The required rain does not come until autumn followed by severe cold. Blasdale concludes that the early development of small corms helps the seedlings to survive the cold of winter and grow rapidly once warm weather arrives. (p28).
Difficult to grow?
Cyclamen has the reputation for being difficult to grow. Admittedly, Cyclamen persicum is not frost-tolerant. Do not overwater! From personal experience, they do not forgive such treatment easily. They throw a tantrum. You gaze in despair as leaf after leaf turns yellow. The Cyclamen Society offers good advice to fellow over-waterers. Treat your Cyclamen persicum well and it will come back next Christmas too.
References and further information:
Blasdale, Walter C*: Cyclamen Persicum. Its Natural and Cultivated Forms, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California/London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1952
Ciotir, Claudia & Yesson, Chris & Culham, Alastair: Future Predictions of Cyclamen Distribution in the Mediterranean Region, Poster, University of Reading, 2006??? Last accessed 16/12/17
Cyclamen Society, The: Plants, Last accessed 16/12/17
Highfield, Roger: Cyclamen ‘under threat’ from changing climate, The Telegraph, 20 September 2006, Last accessed 16/12/17
RHS: Cyclamen Persicum – Persian Cyclamen, Last accessed 16/12/17
Yesson, Chris & Culham, Alastair: A phyloclimatic study of Cyclamen, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2006 6:72, 20 September 2006, Last accessed 16/12/17
Karen Andrews is an MSc student in Plant Diversity at the University of Reading with her own blog as a writer and translator. Link to previous Glastonbury Thorn Advent 2017 Blog.
Photos: author’s own
Map: Yesson & Culham BMC
If you would like winter flowering Cyclamen for the garden then try Cyclamen coum, but shop around for good cultivars. One of the specialist suppliers where you can find a selection of Cyclamen coum plants is Ashwood Nurseries.