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PLANTS : Queenly Cyclamen Reigns as a Crowning Glory

November 26, 1994|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Treat a cyclamen like a queen, and this regal flowering plant will reward you with a long reign.

"I call them queens because they each like to have their own little throne," says Janelle Wiley, color specialist at Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar.

Peek under the leaves of any cyclamen planted at Sherman Gardens, and you'll see what Wiley means. Each plant is slightly elevated so that the top of its tuberous root system is an inch or so above soil level.

"Cyclamens do not like wet crowns," says Wiley. "Planting them a bit high so they have good drainage is the main trick to growing them well. Other than that, they're pretty easy."

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While Wiley's metaphor is an effective way to remember how to plant cyclamens, it could also be used to describe their appearance.

Though these plants provide cool-season color over a long period of time just like pansies, the effect they create is entirely different. Coolly serene instead of brightly cheerful. Patrician rather than perky. Grace Kelly versus Doris Day.

You could think of a cyclamen's rather starchy-looking, silver-marbled, heart-shaped leaves as royal ruffs; its tall, straight flower stems as aristocratic necks rising above them; and its large, but slender flowers as imperial heads, nodding ever so slightly to acknowledge your presence. These blooms, incidentally, make excellent cut flowers that last seven to 10 days--if lobbing them off doesn't make you feel like you're committing regicide.

Wiley likes cyclamens best in flower beds all by themselves.

"They're so elegant; they don't need anything else," she says. But, if you prefer combination plantings, Steve Minoru Goto, president of Cyclamen Growers in Lake View Terrace, suggests mixing them with English and/or fairy primrose and candytuft or with ornamental kale.

If you're a bit more daring, he says, consider white-flowering cyclamens interspersed with red poinsettias, as Disneyland is doing in one of its annual beds this year.

If you prefer growing cyclamens in pots, again they look splendid solo. Or, for an entirely different look, combine them with a bit if ivy, an impatiens or two, and a top knot of liriope in a moss-lined, hanging basket, as Sherman Gardens has done in its Tea Garden setting.

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The ideal location for planting cyclamens is in a area with bright, filtered light. Any area where you've had success with impatiens or tuberous begonias would be fine. A situation with morning sun/afternoon shade could also work, especially along the coast.

"Cyclamens need a lot more sun than people suppose," says Goto. "They don't like deep shade. But they also like cool temperatures. That's why they should generally be planted in a protected area inland."

Cyclamens also perform best in rich soil; amend their bed with compost or other organic material before planting.

Sherman Gardens adds sharp sand to its potting soil mix (two parts soil to one part sand) to help ensure good drainage.

Keep the soil moist the first week or two until the plant has established new roots. Then water whenever the top inch of the soil has dried out or the plants' leaves begin to look soft and spongy rather than stiff and crisp.

Feed lightly but frequently. ("Cyclamens are grazers," says Goto.) The easiest way to accomplish this, he says, is adding a half tablespoon or so of a slow-releasing fertilizer like Osmocote to the soil at the time of planting and repeat the process every three months through the plant's bloom cycle.

"If you planted cyclamens in, say, November, then you would add more Osmocote to the soil in February, and again in April, and then stop until next fall, he says.

Alternatively, Sherman Gardens uses a water-soluble fertilizer Wiley describes as "gentle" (10-10-5) at regular strength every two to three weeks.

Remove dead leaves to prevent bacterial diseases and maintain a cyclamen's well-bred appearance. Also remove spent flowers to keep the plant flowering instead of producing seed.

Don't cut the stems the way you normally would though, advises Goto. Water collecting in the remnant of the hollow stems can cause rot. Instead grasp the stem near the base, twist it, and yank it out. Do the same when you remove blooms for cut flowers.

Follow Goto and Wiley's recommendations, and cyclamens will continue producing flowers above their elegant ruffs of marbled leaves well into spring.

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When the weather heats up, a cyclamen slows down. At this point, you have three choices.

You can treat the plant as an annual and pull it out and discard it. This is the alternative most often taken.

You can treat it the way you would a bulb and force it to go dormant.

"Stop fertilizing when the cyclamen stops producing flowers and begins to look worn out," suggests Wade Roberts, director of Sherman Gardens. "Start slowing down on water, too, and then stop completely. When the plant is thoroughly dried out, dig it up, store it in a dark place, and replant it in late fall."

Or you could do what Paul Brackman of Progressive Growers in Vista, another cyclamen grower, does, and that is essentially nothing.

"I'm too lazy to dig things out, dry them out, store them and then remember to plant them at the right time the following year," says Brackman. "I prefer letting nature run its course."

So his cyclamens stay in the ground year round. They stop blooming and lose a few leaves, and the summer water needed to keep his tuberous begonias going rots out a portion of the cyclamens occasionally. But the ones that make it just keep getting better, he says.

"I had one white cyclamen last year that's about 6 years old that developed a tuber about eight inches across and produced as many as 125 flowers at a time at the height of the season," he says. "It was an amazing sight."

The length of a cyclamen's reign is up to you. But whether you keep it for a season or let it run its natural course, it's going to put on a royal show.

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