A LITTLE WONDER FOR THE WINTER... THE CHEERFUL CYCLAMEN CAN BE RELIED ON TO GIVE A GARDEN COLOUR... SO LONG AS IT'S NOT THE SUMMER.
TRAYS of brightly coloured cyclamens are being stacked high in garden centres, florists and supermarkets as the retailers get ready for Christmas.
These pretty flowers in vivid pinks, purples, reds and white are a reliable source of colour and beauty in the very depths of winter.
But cyclamens aren't just for Christmas - some species will start flowering at the end of summer and into autumn, while others can commence in January right through to spring.
Because they originate in the Mediterranean, cyclamens usually go dormant during the summer so that's the one season you don't see them flower.
Cyclamen hederifolium appears in September (or sometimes even late August) when its delicate pink fragrant flowers open on naked stems.
The ivy-like marbled foliage comes next, knitting together to form a delightful tapestry.
When planting the tubers don't go too deep - about two inches is fine.
Most cyclamens like a bit of shade but this one will tolerate sun as well and, true to its Mediterranean roots, it likes its soil to be well drained.
Rather than plant singly, I'd recommend digging a hole big enough to take half a dozen plants and then let them self seed, creating a naturalised effect. Cyclamen coum will take up the flowering baton in winter. These look lovely in the shade under trees, amid ferns, aconites and snowdrops.
Their delicate pink flowers are held over kidney shaped foliage. Mulch in spring after the leaves die down.
Because they disappear completely, be careful when you are hoeing in the summer and try not to disturb them.
Then there is the florist's cyclamen, the indoor variety, usually Cyclamen persicum.
This is too tender for outdoors but is also a bit fussy indoors.
The problem is it doesn't like to be overheated which our dwellings often are mid-winter. A cool unheated conservatory is ideal for them.
Getting the watering right is a balancing act between not letting the compost dry out completely but not keeping it too wet either as the stems and tubers will decay.
Water from the base to avoid wetting the stems and foliage but don't leave the pot sitting in water as this is a sure way to drown them.
You can either discard after flowering, as many do, but it is a perennial which, with some care, should re-flower again next year.
To do this, allow the plant to go dormant when it finishes flowering in spring. You are trying to replicate what happens when they are growing in the wild - their leaves will go yellow and die.
Move to a cool area, a garage would be fine, and discontinue watering.
Around September/October bring the plant back to the light and resume watering and feeding as they wake up. I love using these plants for Christmas decorations - plant in a bowl with some gravel at the base for drainage and then cover the compost with some moss.
While it's tempting to buy in full flower, try to choose plants with lots of buds. That way you'll get to enjoy them a lot longer!