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What are Cyclamen?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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Cyclamen is a genus of flowering plants which contains around 20 species generically known as cyclamens. One species, Cyclamen persicum, is commonly grown in gardens, and it can also be cultivated indoors as a houseplant. Several especially decorative cultivars of this cyclamen species have been developed to appeal to gardeners, and they are often readily available at gardening stores. It is also sometimes possible to find other cyclamen species, with a bit of hunting.

These plants are native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, preferring temperate climates like those found in USDA zones seven and higher. They can tolerate very warm weather, as long as they are provided with some shade to shelter in. Cyclamens grow from tubers, and in most climates, they are perennial, although the above-ground part of the plant will die off during the summer months, when weather conditions tend to be especially warm in the plant's native habitat.

The foliage of cyclamens is deep green, and marked with interesting pale green to silver patterns. The leaves are rounded to almost heart-shaped, depending on the cultivar and species. The flowers are brightly colored, and may be white, pink, reddish, or almost purple, with reflexed petals. Reflexed petals bend backward away from the heart of the flower, making cyclamen flowers look a little like butterflies resting on the parent plant.

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Cyclamen likes lots of light, and plenty of water in the fall, winter, and spring. The plant can be subject to rot if it is allowed to get soggy, and it is important to clear away dead and dying foliage so that the plant gets plenty of fresh air. When grown indoors in a pot, gardeners should move cyclamen to a dim spot in the summer to allow the plant to go dormant. Outdoors, cyclamen should be provided with some shade, as for example from a deciduous shrub which will lose its leaves in the fall, right around the time the plant wants lots of light.

You may also hear people mistakenly call cyclamens primroses, even though primroses are in fact entirely different flowering plants. Cyclamens are also known as sowbread or Persian violets. Many Middle Eastern and Asian plants are known by common names which reference European and especially British plants, illustrating the state of confusion among many early explorers and colonists. Others knew full well that the plants they were looking at belonged to different botanical groupings, but they thought the plants might appeal more to European consumers if they had familiar-sounding names.

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