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How to keep your Christmas cyclamen alive all year in France

We talk to a French breeder who has been growing cyclamen since 1919. Their plants are winter hardy and summer heat resistant

Metis rouge ecarlate decora (left) Halios curly ecarlate vif (right) Pic: Morel Diffusion

A bedding scheme of Cyclamen persicum in bold reds or pastel colours is something I can only fantasise about, although I expect that there are a few of you reading this who are actually able to live the dream. 

I would not be without garden-hardy, small-flowered C. hederifolium or C. coum in my autumn or spring garden, of course, but this flashier species from the Middle East and Greek Islands would be well beyond my gardening repertoire here, since they normally tolerate temperatures no lower than 5 or 10°C. 

Right? Not quite... enter a talented modern breeder, seed merchant and grower (of which we have more than a few in France). 

Specifically, a modern breeder here to persuade you that, yes, you could put cyclamen in your Paris window box for Christmas – or even use it as a bedding plant further south. 

Read more: Paris’ grey skyline could turn green if roof garden idea approved

Modern breeder in the Var

Cyclamen were first introduced to France in the sixteenth century, but Morel Diffusion, based in Fréjus in the Var, have only been going since 1919. 

Their story provides an interesting reflection on changing fashions. Their initial breeding focus was on creating plants with flowers as large as possible. Nowadays, they concentrate on miniatures, with their best known being the miniature ‘Metis’ or ‘Smartiz’ series.

Since they send seed and young plants all over the world, a key aim has always been to please a plethora of different markets. 

Hence, fringed flowers are bred with an eye on the German market, where they are most popular, while the Dutch like compact plants that work perfectly with their rolling Danish trolley systems. 

Large flowers more cold resistant

Their breeding programmes have similarly run the gamut from concentration on heat resistance (very important to the Italian market where, it seems, cyclamen are more popular than anywhere else in Europe) – through to ranges which will tolerate cold weather. 

Morel say that the smaller types – such as their ‘Midi’ series – tend to be more heat-resistant, since they transpire less, while the cold-tolerant types will tend to have larger flowers and can be tolerant of frost down to about -2°C. 

If frost does hit your plants, the tubers should be able to cope for a couple of days, but you should remove any flowers that have been damaged by the weather.

Read more: Five drought management tips for gardens from a French plant expert

Where and when to plant

If you are planting outdoors or in a window box, Morel recommend you plant them at the end of August north of the Loire and up until mid-October in the south. 

For both situations it seems they would recommend the ‘Metis’ range amongst miniatures, or the larger flowered ‘Latinia’ or ‘Halios’ types. 

Make sure you plant away from wind and the heaviest rain and ensure that the plants stay dry for the first three weeks after going into the ground. 

The cooler the temperature, the less you should think of watering them. 

Make them last indoors

It seems to me that this is a pretty expensive bedding plant! 

Perhaps it’s fortunate that I don’t have the choice and am forced to grow my Cyclamen persicum indoors. I do, however, try not to treat them as another ‘throwaway’ houseplant and they are, in fact, easier to accommodate throughout the year than many other Christmas season houseplants, such as poinsettia. 

Read more: Expand your houseplant collection with this free swap scheme in France

Think of their origins: rocky, fairly mountainous, scrubby areas, over 1,000m above sea level. 

That translates into strong, but filtered light and water that drains rapidly away from the tuber. When you water, always do so around the edge of the pot with a long-spouted watering can, topping up what you’ve offered over a period of a few hours if the plant is quite dry. 

Alternatively sit the plant in a saucer of water to absorb from below, but never for longer than about 15 minutes. Never allow the top of the tuber to remain wet for more than a few minutes. 

These exotic-looking little strangers are much tougher than us, but won’t enjoy the heat that we relish, so are best in a very cool dining room at about 10°C, or in a frost-free conservatory. 

If it is a place you heat up to 25°C for a large Christmas family gathering – tant pis, your cyclamen will put up with it for one day! 

Tuber should be dry during summer dormancy

Well after Christmas – probably into March – your Christmas cyclamen’s leaves will start to yellow. 

Carefully pull them away by twisting slightly at the base, stop watering, and put the plant in a cool place for the summer – the tuber should be well above the soil level and maintained dry during this dormancy period. 

In September or October your plant should start to produce a few small leaves again and only then do you recommence watering. 

If you are lucky enough to have a plant that produces one of the beautifully coiled little seed pods, harvest your seed when the spring-like stalk is fully furled in on itself. 

When you sow, cover with vermiculite to regulate fluctuations in moisture level. 

I would love to hear from you if you have experience growing Cyclamen persicum, particularly if you’ve tried it in the open garden. 

Don’t forget to tell me where you live and what your average winter minimum temperature is! 

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