From the end of autumn and right through winter, garden centers and florist shops, even supermarkets, display pots of magnificent florist’s cyclamens. With their multicolored flowers and their rosette of beautiful leaves often marbled with silver, the cyclamen is a most attractive plant… but not always easy to grow.
Still, if you’re willing to bend your indoor gardening techniques a bit, you can grow it. Here’s how…
But First a Bit of History
The plant we know as the florist’s cyclamen or just cyclamen was derived from the Persian cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum). In the wild, it grows in the eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East, but curiously, despite its name, is not found in the wild in Persia (Iran). It produces its small pink or white flowers during the winter and spring, taking advantage of the cool and relatively rainy weather that prevails there at that season, then goes dormant during the hot, dry summer, retiring into an underground tuber.
The florist’s cyclamen – the one you see sold in stores – is bigger, more colorful and more vigorous than the species, as it is a triploid or tetraploid (it has more chromosomes than normal). In spite of the increased genetic material and the fact that it will no longer cross with the wild species, it is still considered a C. persicum.
The cultivated cyclamen was developed in Europe, essentially from the end of the 19th century on, for use as a gift plant. Growers liked it because 1) it bloomed in the winter when getting other plants to bloom was difficult and 2) it would grow in an unheated or barely heated greenhouse, which made it inexpensive to produce. The reasons that made it so popular 150 years ago are still true today.
It’s important to understand that the greenhouse industry has never considered the florist’s cyclamen to be a houseplant. It’s a gift plant, period. Its role is to look pretty for a few weeks, then die. Then you replace it with a newly-purchased one. But sly indoor gardeners can stretch out its use for months, even years, by catering to its special needs.
Grown From Seed
Unlike most other “bulbs”, the florist’s cyclamen doesn’t form offsets, nor will it root from cuttings. And you can’t divide the tuber either (well, actually, you could, but the cut surface rarely heals well and therefore tends to rot). Theoretically it can be grown by tissue culture (i.e. in a test tube), but that’s not how it is grown commercially. It is instead grown by seed, usually started about 18 months to two years before you purchase the plant.
The flowers of the florist’s cyclamen are certainly curious. Borne on an arched stem, the downward-facing flower starts to open normally, then its petals bend and twist backwards, giving it the appearance of a butterfly about to land. The color range is extensive, including white, pink, purple, violet, salmon and red, and most are bi- or even tricolor, often with a contrasting eye. You’ll find cultivars with fringed or ruffled petals as well.
The wild form was very fragrant, but hybrid varieties often have little or no odor. If you prefer scented plants, make sure you take a whiff before you buy.
The leaves are often nearly as attractive as the flowers. Heart-shaped, sometimes with a toothed margin, the leaf is reddish underneath and green and silver on top. The amount and pattern of silver varies from one strain to another. The best combination is, of course, a plant with pretty flowers and beautiful foliage.
As for size, the classic florist’s cyclamen is about a foot (30 cm) across, but the very attractive (and less expensive) miniature cyclamens are currently all the rage and they can measure as little as 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter.
Does the Cyclamen Deserve Its Prima Donna Reputation?
The florist’s cyclamen has the reputation of being capricious and dying quickly when conditions don’t suit it… and there is more than a bit of truth to that. However, modern varieties are not as hard to grow as those of 20 or 30 years ago. There has been a lot of work put into developing cyclamens that “hold better” under retail conditions and that has been an indirect advantage for indoor gardeners. Dwarf varieties, especially, seem more tolerant of home conditions and may be a better choice for your first experience.
Keep ‘Em Cool and Well-lit
The key to success with this plant is to find it a spot where it can get both cool temperatures and bright light.
On the temperature side, ideally you would aim for a maximum of 60?F (15?C), but 68?C (20?C) is acceptable (and easier to supply!). The minimum temperature is just above freezing (33?F/1?C) and it fact, it will tolerate frost – yes, even when it is in full bloom! – as long as it’s only fleeting. So the ideal situation would be to grow it in a barely heated room.
Still, you can grow one on a normal windowsill as long as temperatures drop at night. Just avoid spots that are really hot during the day.
It also needs good light, although not full sun. In most climates, an east window is ideal, as it gets good light with some direct sun, but only in the coolness of the morning. A south or west exposure is also acceptable, especially during the winter, but you’ll probably have to move the plant back from the window or to a cooler spot when the sun gets stronger and hotter in the spring. A northern exposure would be fine from May to October, but is probably too dark in the winter.
You can also grow and bloom cyclamens under fluorescent lights.
Moist But Not Wet
The cyclamen is persnickety when it comes to soil moisture as well. It prefers evenly moist soil, but will rot away if the soil is soaking wet. So you have to keep it in a “barely moist” state for good results.
Ideally you’d water thoroughly as soon as the soil is dry to the touch. My suggestion: check the soil’s condition every 3 to 4 days and water as needed. People who stick to a once-a-week watering schedule, unfortunately, tend to lose their plants, as it seems to have the capacity to go from evenly moist to bone dry in just a few days. A week can be too long to go without a watering!
This is one plant it is better to water from below, filling the saucer with water and allowing the potting mix to drink its fill. Be careful not to let the pot soak in water for too long, though: after 15 or 20 minutes, empty the saucer from any surplus water.
Why not water from above? Well, some people do so and get away with it, but there is a risk of inadvertently pouring water into the depression on the top of the tuber and that could cause rot.
If you find your cyclamen completely wilted (unfortunately, an all too common occurrence) and its growing mix dry as dust, water well and the plant should recover… but it will almost certainly lose a few leaves and flowers. But there is a limit to the number of times the plant can recover from such a trauma. Try not to let it happen again.
On the other hand, if you find your plant wilted, but its soil is still moist, it’s suffering from rot, a much more serious situation. If so, water very moderately for a while, keeping the soil barely moist, and it may recover after new roots have formed. If rot has reached the tuber itself, however, there is nothing to be done.
Good atmospheric humidity is also important… plus the plant will dry out much less quickly when the air is humid, saving you a lot of effort watering.
The air in our homes is however often very dry when outdoor temperatures are cold. So, in the winter, try using a humidifier or place the plant on a humidity tray to boost the humidity. Another possibility is to surround it with other plants: since each one gives off humidity due to transpiration, that it helps create a moister microclimate.
You’ll need to break one of the usual rules about fertilizing, though, the one that says not to “feed” your houseplants in the winter. While your other houseplants are in slow-to-no growth mode under the short days of winter, the cyclamen is a winter grower by nature and puts on most of its growth under short days. Therefore, from November through April, add a little fertilizer to the watering can, that is, at 1/8th of the recommended dose.
The type of fertilizer is of little importance as is any specific NPK formula. Any fertilizer you have on hand will be suitable.
Cyclamens need quite a bit of grooming to look their best, as they constantly lose older leaves and flowers and replace them with new ones. You can easily remove the fading ones by giving the stem a twist as you give it a light tug.
Breaking the Rules: Keep Your Cyclamen Growing in Summer
Many readers will be surprised to see that I suggest growing your cyclamen year-round, including right through summer. That was certainly not what I was told to do when I first started growing cyclamens 40 years ago, but many modern strains of cyclamens don’t seem to be as picky about needing a summer dormancy as older ones were. As long as you can keep your cyclamen reasonably cool, you’ll probably be surprised to see it bloom at least modestly right through the summer with no rest whatsoever.
In late spring, therefore, when your plant begins to bloom less and produce fewer leaves, it’s time to change its growing conditions. Move it to a cooler place (again, a maximum of 68?F/20?C if you find such a spot) with good light. In many homes, that would be a north window. Some people put them outdoors in the summer, inserting the pot into to the soil in a shady spot so it will be cooler. Personally, I move mine to the basement in the summer, because I find it easier to supply the needed freshness there. They grow very well under my basement’s fluorescent lamps.
Obviously, keep watering your cyclamen as need to maintain its growth. If you let it dry out, it will go dormant!
Or Let it Go Dormant
If you don’t have a cool spot – or don’t want to be bothered with a temperamental houseplant while you’re busy gardening outdoors – by all means let it go dormant for the summer. When you see it stop blooming and its foliage begins to turn yellow, usually in late May or early June, just stop watering it. Some foliage may hang on for a few weeks, even without water, but when it finally turns yellow, remove it.
You can then place the pot in a dark corner until fall (the usual recommendation) or leave it in the full blazing sun. (At this point, the plant will be dormant and won’t notice the difference!) Do check the pot occasionally, pushing lightly down on the tuber (the top of which is normally exposed). If it feels a bit soft, water lightly – just a few spoonfuls – to keep it from drying out entirely.
When you see small leaves emerging from the top of the tuber in August or September, start watering again: lightly at first, then more abundantly as the foliage begins to grow back. Put it back in a cool and brightly spot… and soon your cyclamen will again be in full bloom again!
Your cyclamen’s tuber will grow over time and eventually you’ll find you’ll need to repot it into a larger pot. The best time to do so is in August or September, just as growth resumes. Repot using a light potting mix and replant the tuber as it was at the original pot, that is, with the top of the tuber (its crown) slightly exposed.
Cyclamen as Winter Annual
In regions with mild winters (zones 9 to 11), such as southern California, florist’s cyclamen is often used as a winter annual and planted in the garden, usually from October or November to March or April. When it starts to bloom less, it is yanked and replaced by summer annuals (marigolds, salvias, cosmos, etc.).
Potted cyclamens can also be grown outside during the winter in more temperate regions as long as they are brought indoors on frosty nights. I’ve seen them used as a living winter decoration for flowerboxes in Paris, for example. In truly cold climates, where subfreezing temperatures are a nearly daily occurence, you can only grow the florist’s cyclamen indoors.
And there you go: the capricious yet beautiful cyclamen will give you months of beautiful flowers… but you do have to bend a bit to its whims to get the best results!
Hello and thank you for the informative post! Quick question. Is it ok to transplant a florist’s cyclamen from its small plastic pot on purchase? Or is it safer to pop the plastic pot into a larger one with soil, of course, and wait till your suggested time August to repot?
28/02/2022 My cyclamen has been flowering continuously for 14 months. Never less than about a dozen buds on it. It has outgrown 2 pots and more than doubled in size. What do I do with it now?
Simply repot into to slightly larger container and continue your care!
I have a Cyclamen persicum that my husband bought for me as a Valentine’s Day gift over 4 years ago. It has developed what I would call a large shoot off the main bulb, and new leaves and flowers are growing off this. Have you ever had anything like this happen? I feel like I should cut off this part because it’s not supported very well, making it lean over some from the weight. Plus, there are so many leaves now it’s crowded. I’m wondering if this happened due to me adding too much soil a while back, because I thought the soil level was getting too low. I realized after a while that it wasn’t happy with me doing that! I removed the excess soil, but it was a bit too late. Also, the leaf stems are growing very strange, which has been an ongoing problem. I can’t seem to put it into words, but the leaf stems are not straight. I have the plant in an east facing window, so based on your advice, it seems like the perfect environment. Other than the soil issue, I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Any advice you could give me would be much appreciated, as I’m having a difficult time finding anything online pertaining to my specific dilemma. Thank you.
The offshoot is very unusual. I’d never heard of this happening. You might want to cut it free and pot it up on its own. No, cyclamens don’t like having their tuber covered in to: the top should be exposed. I’m not sure what’s causing the leaf stems to not grow straight.
Thank you for your reply. That’s exactly what I thought of, to try and see if I can get that off shoot to take root. Yeah, found out the hard way that they don’t like that much covering of soil lol. To be completely honest, I thought this whole time it was a different plant than what it is! When I noticed the off shoot, I took a picture of the plant, and used an app to identify it to see if I could find any info telling me how to deal with it. I was amazed to read that the variety I have normally is thrown out at the end of the blooming season, because it’s considered a “gift plant.” My plant blooms almost all year! I even had to transplant it because it got too big for its original pot. Unfortunately, I don’t have hardly any experience with house plants. Most of the house plants I’ve had in the past died pretty quickly! So, I’ve been pretty amazed that this plant has lived so long. I think I’ll call around to some local nurseries to see if anyone has heard of this happening with the off shoot. I’m just worried that I could potentially harm the plant. Thank you. 🙂
I have a cyclamen that is about 8 years old. My mom got it for Mother’s Day and loved it, so after she passed away I have been keeping it going in her memory. It thrived in my office’s north-facing window, but we recently moved to a new building and I don’t have such a window any more. Will it be okay under the regular office fluorescent lights? It lost most of its leaves when I took it home before the move—the change in environment was too much for it. I want to nurse it back to health. It flowered constantly for the four years I’ve had it at the office, and I would hate to lose it now.
The lighting might well be enough. It’s the warmer temperatures that might not help. It does like things cool. If its loosing leaves, water less. When they start to grow back, keep the soil moist.
Thanks, I’ll give it a shot. The office is cool (seems they just turned on the ventilation so the temp dropped about five degrees) so my cyclamen might enjoy it more than I am at the moment!
I have a cyclamen my mother got on Mother’s Day in 2012. She has since passed away and I keep the cyclamen going because she loved it so. It thrived in my office in a north-facing window, but we just moved to a new building and I don’t have a suitable spot for it yet. Will it do okay just sitting on my desk under the fluorescent lights? When I took it home it lost most of its leaves due to the change in environment—I hope to nurse it back to health in the office.
This is the best advice on growing florist cyclamen! Thank you! I had one that lasted 10+ years (until it relocated with the humans to another state and a colder climate). Amazing there are still people suggesting throwing these plants out once they are done blooming.
To be honest, I still people to toss them… under certain circumstances. If I don’t have the time to explain what to do, and I’m dealing with a very novice gardener, I’ll usually recommend throwing the plant out when it finishing blooming, but still adding that keeping it is possible if you know what to do!
I have 2 florist cyclamens at present. One I have had for about 8 years now and the other a more recent purchase (approx. 1 1/2 – 2 years). I keep them both in my north facing bay window year round and they both bloom for me year round! During the hotter summer months they have only a few blooms at a time, sometimes as little as two or three, and fewer leaves. I live in north-central Saskatchewan, rated hardiness zone 1b. During the long winters I assume that the temperatures in this window are ideal for these plants for optimal day time & night time conditions. During the summer months our temperatures can & do reach up in the 80’s to 90F so then it is very warm in that window but they still continue to survive and bloom through these conditions. I do agree with YLeventhal, it seems crazy to suggest throwing these plants away after they are done blooming when it seems so easy to keep them going but not everyone has the patience or inclination to do so. Even though my plants bloom fairly prolifically throughout the winter months, the newly purchased ones grown in greenhouses under very controlled and ideal light and temperature conditions will have more blooms and leaves.
I too manage to keep mine blooming all year (especially the dwarf ones), but many people, even experienced gardeners, have a hard time with cyclamens. You really do need a prolonged period of cool temperatures to keep them happy!