When I lived in France, there was a tradition that in mid-August – the fifteenth to be precise (the holiday for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary) – meant huge thunderstorms, spelling the end of the heat of summer and the beginning of a period of rest after the manic days of June and July. In Provence where I worked, these storms often meant the first rain in two months.
Here in England, although we too excel in rainy bank holidays, our seasons are somewhat less spectacular. For me, the first whiff of the changing seasons; that slight drawing-in of the evenings and cooler mornings is one cyclamen, C. hederifolium.
It’s a plant which always takes me by surprise. There’s absolutely no sign of it until the flowers appear; tiny, dainty, papery up-turned miniature lampshades in tones of white and pink. They light up dry, shady corners of the garden where the soil is all but dust – they’re one of the few plants that will really do well under hollies and conifers.
If left undisturbed, their tubers can grow surprisingly large – I’ve accidentally dug some out that were the size and shape of a flattened tennis ball. This is surprisingly easy to do as their attractive ivy-like leaves (the Latin name hederifolium comes from Hedera, meaning ivy) disappear in late spring, leaving no trace whatsoever of the plant above ground.
Of course, the ivy-leafed cyclamen isn’t the only sort. There are the larger persicum (= from Persia) types, which are grown as houseplants, tiny Cyclamen coum which flowers outdoors in late winter, and dozens of others. What they all have in common is that they grow from tubers, and they will, at some point in the year, go dormant. This means that they pretty much disappear – all the growth dies back to the tuber which then sits and waits for a few months before re-growing. So once your cyclamen has finished flowering and its leaves begin to look a bit dishevelled, stop watering it and allow it its natural rest. With any luck it will thank you enough to go on living for another season: if treated well, these colourful plants can last years, bringing hundreds of flowers to brighten your garden or home.