Tracy Wilson sympathises with these misunderstood plants

13th December 2006

Indoor Cyclamen can be a little bit difficult for a couple of reasons. You have to bear in mind that when you buy a Cyclamen, looking all plumptious and lovely at your local garden centre or nursery, they have probably come from a specialist greenhouse environment where they’ve been grown as a monocrop with extremely specialist care – high levels of light and watered by capillary matting from underneath so that they literally just suck up what they need; and they’re in very light, open, airy conditions. We promptly take them home.... If they’re lucky, they get a windowsill; if they’re unlucky they get a windowsill with a freezing cold draught in it. They don’t get high enough light levels and then we quite often water them by pouring water into the top of the pot. So it’s a sort of catalogue of disasters for them, really. Even if you don’t water them that way, even if you’re careful and water them by standing the bottom of the pot into a saucer of water and letting them take it up, it is quite easy to overwater Cyclamen. Because they’re a corm they are more susceptible to basal rot. Not only do they have a corm but they also have a fleshy root system. When they’re watered it’s best to let them stand in water for five minutes or so and let them suck it up, and then take them out and let the excess drain away. Don’t think that 'half an inch of water won’t do them any harm' – it can kill them. The second thing that does a lot of harm is a draughty windowsill. In my house, I have two windows in which I can, theoretically, put houseplants, but with both the wind that comes through is Arctic. So I tend not to have houseplants that need high levels of light so that I don’t have to put them actually on the windowsill. The ideal conditions for a Cyclamen are in a room that’s not that warm – a hot sitting-room is not the ideal spot for it. A bedroom is good, if it’s just cool but not cold. The Cyclamen needs to be well-lit but out of a draught, making sure that it’s not watered from the top of the pot.

If it starts to collapse, the biggest mistake people make is to assume that that means it’s too dry and then they give it more water. The chances are, it’s the exact opposite: Cyclamen usually collapse because they’ve got waterlogged. Once they collapse it’s almost impossible to get them back to a state of livelihood. If they do go ‘flopsy’, tip the pot up: if it’s light, OK, it wants water. If it’s not light, it certainly does not need another drink. It’s very difficult to drain the soil out – you can’t exactly take it out of the pot and ring it out, it doesn’t work! So watering is probably the most critical thing for them. They’ll tolerate lower light levels for a short time over Christmas, but not overwatering. This is the most likely cause of problems. If your Cyclamen has gone to the point of actually collapsing and the leaves are going yellow, then the chances are, it’s a no-no. I think it’s a combination of temperature and water. If you’ve got a nice, airy, open sittingroom, start one off in there and see how it goes on. Also, have a look at the centre where you bought it from. Never, never, ever buy one from a garage forecourt or anywhere else where they’ve been standing outdoors because they’ve just been ready-frozen for you and they won’t be happy bunnies. Buy them from somewhere where you know they’ve been looked after, because otherwise, you’re buying a ready built-in problem.

A lot of them have come in from Holland and have been transported in cold units – nothing wrong with that because the nurseries are geared up to doing it and they don’t want loads of people bringing their Cyclamen back in because they’re dying. Sometimes they’ve been put somewhere too close to a door so that they’re catching the draught – and you’re buying a problem. But if it’s a centre that you’re normally happy buying stuff from, then I wouldn’t have said that that would be an issue. It’s when people buy them from outside a cornershop or a garage forecourt that they are courting disaster. So I think that if you might want to attempt growing one more, then try putting it in an airy sitting room and see how you get on with that. Don’t buy them too fully out in flower. It’s better to buy them in-bud with loads of buds to come. Make sure the foliage looks good: if it’s already got a few yellowing leaves and you think ‘Well, I could pick them off’ – don’t! You should be looking for something that’s in the peak of health. It should be looking green and turgid and full of buds, all yummy and vigourous. It’s the same as if you were buying any other kind of plant: you’re not looking for something to resuscitate, unless you wish to take up a course in first aid. You should be looking at something that’s in the prime of health.

It’s the same with any other houseplant. Take Poinsettias: I called into the supermarket on my way home tonight and I saw some extremely sorry-looking Poinsettias, with the bracts already curling up and looking black at the edges. They were in cellophane and I knew damn well that they’d been standing outside the door, and the staff thought that because they were wrapped in cellophane they would be protected by the wind. Hell’s delight, hadn’t anyone been outside? It was blowing a hooley out there. I would say as a final tip, whether you’re buying a present or getting one for yourself, do not be tempted to buy houseplants or even cut flowers on garage forecourts. Not even out of pity, unless you want to throw your money away! Cut flowers don’t like a cold wind, living plants sure-as-hell don’t like it: it’s cold and windy out there and you’re buying plants with an extremely short shelf-life if you go for those ones. One point is worth bearing in mind with Cyclamen. The big, fat, juicy flowered ones are strictly indoors.

There are now these mini-Cyclamen that are actually hardy to about minus five degrees, and they're great. You can put them outside in your window box and they’re fine. They’re no problem at all, seem to be much more robust than the big indoor ones. You can also keep them in a cool conservatory, on a colder windowsill. They’re much happier, much easier to look after. Again, the main thing to watch with any of these when grown indoors is the watering - don’t let them get too wet. But they’re well worth looking after. The miniature ones are probably the easiest, with the ‘Miracle’ series being the best of these. If you go to London, I find it quite sickening because they’ve got the big, plumptious indoor ones growing outdoors in window boxes, but that’s because they’ve got a micro-climate, and their owners will have bought them from places where they’ve been hardened off properly and are ready to go outdoors.

© 2006 Tracy Wilson