By Dr. Mercola
Cyclamen is a vibrant flowering plant that’s particularly popular as a houseplant, in part because it blooms during the winter months of January, February and March. The word cyclamen is Greek and comes from the word “kyklos,” meaning circle, which refers to the round shape of its tuber (a short underground stem) or the twisted, curved shape of its main flower stalk.1
It’s best known for its striking blossoms that come in shades of pink, white, purple and red along with their impressive foliage, which includes heart-shaped or round leaves patterned with shades of green and white.
Originating in the Mediterranean, technically cyclamen refers to a number of plants from the Primulaceae family, many of which can survive outdoors in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hardiness zones 7 and above. The most popular variety, however, particularly in the U.S., is Cyclamen persicum. This perennial plant is often found for sale in garden shops during the fall and winter and is most prized as a houseplant.
Cyclamen Has a History of Medicinal Use
Cyclamen has a long history of use as both an ornamental plant and medicinal, but the latter is actually what came first. Cyclamen has been used medicinally for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 1600s that it started to show up in European gardens.2 Around that time, cyclamen plants would only bloom once every four or five years, but modern cultivation has changed that to yearly blossoms.3 According to Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina:4
“In the 1800s the Victorians became enamored with the tender Cyclamen persicum and started breeding it into the multitudinous number of florists cyclamen cultivars that we see today. The Victorians prized cyclamen for their winter flowers and used them as a popular Christmas decoration … a practice that has grown into a huge business today.”
The therapeutic properties of cyclamen are thought to be due, in part, to triterpene glycosides known as saponins, found in the roots. With noted anti-inflammatory properties, cyclamen has been used since medieval times in the treatment of arthritic conditions.5 Saponins from cyclamen’s extract may help regulate inflammatory response by influencing the behavior of human macrophages.6
Further, the C. europaeum cyclamen species may also help reduce facial pain and ease mucosal obstruction in patients with mild to severe rhinosinusitis if used as a nasal spray for seven days.7 The extract of Cyclamen coum, an endemic cyclamen plant in Turkey, has even been found to kill cervical cancer and nonsmall cell lung cancer cells in a laboratory study, with researchers suggesting it could prove to be a novel anticancer agent.8
The plant also has a long history of homeopathic use for a variety of ailments, from anemia and bone pain to uterine and menstrual disorders.9 Cyclamen also goes by the names of Persian violet and sowbread, the latter because wild pigs are known to have a fondness for digging up the tubers to eat them.
Choosing the Right Variety of Cyclamen
There are 23 species of cyclamen, and if you plan to grow it outside you’ll need to make sure you’re in the proper hardiness zone and also choose a variety that’s hardy. Cyclamen enjoys hot dry summers (during which it’s typically dormant) and cool winters without frost. If you live in an area with heavy summer rains, the tubers may rot. Choose a protected area, as cyclamen in the wild tends to live among trees, shrubs and rocks. It may need mostly shade or some sun, depending on variety.
If you’re planting a tuber and there are no visible roots, you may be wondering which way is “up.” If you look closely, you’ll notice a growing point on one side, which is what should face upward. If the tuber is shaped like a saucer, the Cyclamen Society notes, “Plant with the convex side downward [and the] concave side upward.”10 As for species, according to Avent:11
“The following list groups the species from easiest to grow in temperate gardens to most difficult, based on their cold hardiness and overall adaptability.
1. Cyclamen hederifolium, cilicium, coum and alpinum
2. Cyclamen purpurascens, pseudibericum, repandum, mirabile, rhodium, intaminatum, graecum, colchicum
3. Cyclamen balearicum, creticum and parviflorum
4. Cyclamen africanum, coum ssp. elegans, rhodium ssp. peloponnesiacum, persicum, rohlfsianum and somalense”
While cyclamen can be finicky in regard to water requirements and placement, they do not tend to struggle from pests and diseases, except for the occasional aphids, weevils or thrips. There’s a good chance, however, that you’ll want to grow your cyclamen indoors as a potted plant. Cyclamen persicum hybrids work well for this purpose and can be found in many different colors and sizes, including miniature, medium, large and giant.
Remember that cyclamen likes cool weather, so keep the plant in a cool location, one that doesn’t go higher than 68 degrees Fahrenheit (F), ideally in a window with indirect light.12 Since most people turn on the heat during the winter, you should try to find as cool a place in your house as possible, such as one that stays around 50 to 55 degrees F.
If you plan to grow cyclamen from seed, you can plant multiples in one pot until they develop two to three leaves. At this point, transplant each plant to a 2.5-inch pot. According to Plant Care Today:
“A good soil mixture usually comprises of sandy loam, leaf mold and well-rotted manure. When well established you can shift them to three-inch pots, at which time they should hold six or eight sturdy leaves. Until they become ready to shift into 5- or 6-inch pots, they need no commercial fertilizer.
During winter, give them a temperature of 50 to 55 degrees [F], maximum light, plenty of water and good ventilation. Keeping the young plants growing during the summer makes a challenging stage but when fall comes they start up vigorously … Eighteen months after sowing, it will reach its full bloom.”13
How to Water Cyclamen
How to water a cyclamen plant depends on the season. During the summer, when the plant is dormant, you should stop watering altogether, as excess moisture will cause the tuber to rot. “The idea is to give it a good soaking, let it use up all the water (without the compost getting so dry that either the plant wilts or it is so dry it won’t wet again) and then soak it again. You can expect that by the end of April it will want to go dormant … so you should stop watering then until September,” according to the Cyclamen Society.14
Overwatering is one of the most common problems gardeners experience with cyclamen plants. This may cause the leaves to turn yellow. During the winter, cyclamen should be watered when the compost feels dry, either from the top or bottom, and then allowed to drain thoroughly.
Any water remaining in the saucer should also be cleared away after five minutes. Because cyclamen may rot if you get too much water near the center of the plant, some people prefer watering cyclamen from the bottom (by filling the pot’s saucer with water) or using a self-watering planter.
You can also carefully water the plant around the edges of the pot. If you don’t have a green thumb, you shouldn’t feel intimidated by the cyclamen’s sometimes-demanding nature. “The main things really are keep it cool, out of direct sunlight and don’t over-water,” the Cyclamen Society notes. “Let it dry out, then stand the pot in several inches of water to give it a good soak, then let it drain and leave it until it is fairly dry before repeating the process.”15
Propagating Your Cyclamen Plant
There are a couple of ways to grow new cyclamen plants, one being from seed and the other by division. After the cyclamen goes dormant for the summer, you can cut up the tuber like a potato, making sure that each section has a growing point, or eye, and a root bud on the bottom.
Dust the cut areas with rooting hormone then place them in moist sand covered with a tent of plastic to increase humidity. Once roots form, the tubers can be placed into a small pot of potting soil and kept moist until the winter.16 If you’re growing cyclamen in your garden, you can also collect seeds to grow new plants. Avent explains:17
“Cyclamen are facultative out-crossers so they will set seed best if there are multiple plants growing near each other (that are not clones). Keep an eye on the developing fruits. They will start to soften prior to splitting open. You need to collect the seed after they are mature, but before the fruit opens since insects will likely haul them away before you do.
Ripe seed change color from white to light brown. When they dry out, they turn dark brown. Since the seed have no dormancy requirements, they are best sown fresh and will germinate in 2-4 weeks. They can also be dried and stored for a year or so if needed.”
If you need to repot a cyclamen plant, wait until it goes dormant in the summer to do so. To keep the tuber over the dormant season, store it in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place until early autumn. When the plant starts to sprout new leaves, you’ll know it’s time to start watering it again.
Cyclamen Is Toxic to Pets
One caution to be aware of: Cyclamen is toxic to pets due to the saponins it contains. Any part of the plant can be dangerous, but the tubers or roots are especially toxic. If your dog or cat ingests cyclamen, he may experience drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal heart rate and rhythm, seizures and even death. So be sure to keep these plants (and their tubers during the dormant season) away from pets. Cyclamen can also be harmful to people, especially children.
According to the Illinois Poison Center, cyclamen ranks a 2 out of 3 on their plant toxicity rating scale. This means moderate symptoms may occur if the plant is ingested, including hallucination, stomach irritation, diarrhea and related dehydration. As long as it’s kept in a safe place, however, cyclamen is a beautiful plant that can make a stunning addition to your home or garden.