Pewter Patternleaf Winter Cyclamen
"Your senses become aware of an ancient perfume that wafts down from the Judean hills, compounded of sage, thyme & rosemary. You can hear the wind whispering in the pine trees & echoes of a history that is filled with pain. You stroll through the Jerusalem Forest where shy cyclamens in mauve & cream & wild violets nestle among the rocks. When you walk in the Old City, your feet are treading the stones that King David danced on."
This Magenta winter clyclamen's round leaves show a green fir tree silhoutted in pewter or silver, so that it can be categorized Patternleaf, Pewter Group.
Cyclamen coum ssp coum can be graded by flower-color intensity, from white cyclamens, to shell pink, to rose pink, to deep magenta like this one.
A few are designated "red" or "crimson," but a true red for C. coum remains illusive. Only C. persicum has truly red forms. Selective breeding of the richest darkest of the magentas has long been undertaken in quest for a red (see the page for C. coum 'Crimson King' for elaboration).
These are at their height of flower in January & February, fading out in March. leaves precede the flowers in November or even earlier, & last until April, then go dormant until the following autumn/winter.
The magenta patternleaf specimen shown in the first photo grows near our back door. It's a February photo & you can see the lower stems of Western Syringa in the background, as well as some blooms on C. coum 'Album.'
Some gardeners seem to be afraid to try cyclamens, because their experience has been only with giant florist's cyclamens which are not garden-hardy for temperate zones, & even as houseplants are difficult to maintain so are usually thrown out like faded bouquets. A handful of species, however, are called Hardy Cyclamens because they thrive in the open garden. Among the hardy species, C. coum is one of the hardiest.
Yet some report they did try winter cyclamens & did not find them hardy. Failure can result from the following causes: 1) Planting them too deeply can lead to disappointment, for the tubors should be very, very close to the surface. 2) With the mistaken belief that large tubers are best, gardenrs will obtain large dried tubers which were stolen from the wild, shaved of their roots, dried out, shipped to Holland, packaged, then to the United States. These frequently do not recover. By starting with nursery-grown plants, good luck is a near certainty. 3) Gardeners may disbelieve that any plant really wants a dry shady location up near the trunks of shrubs or trees where little else grows. By "babying" them in a sunnier moister garden, they can be pampered to death.
Cyclamens contain toxic saponins & glucides. If a piece of the tuber were touched to the tongue, the extreme acridity would be fair warning not to eat it. In Lebanon today, & perhaps elsewhere, cyclamen tubers are powdered & mixed with powdered storax, & used for poisoning fish. The Roman author Pliny also spoke of cyclamens used as a toxic fish bait. Merely handling the tubers seems to be largely safe though a few incidents of contact dermatitis have been reported, & incidents increase if the tubers are damaged or cut to better release their acrid chemicals onto the skin.
Nevertheless, in spite of its dangers, there have been many attempts to use it medicinally. Gilbertus Anglicus in Compendium Medicinae (1240) recommended a tincture of cyclamens as a treatment for redness of the face. Dioscorides, the first century Greek physician, recorded several folk-beliefs about its value in love filtres, as an anti-venom, intoxicant, & cure for blemishes, sunburn, or wounds, & made into a salve with honey, placed on the eyes to correct nearsightedness or cure cataracts.
Dioscorides also reported that women who wished to end their pregnancies would walk over flowering cyclamens in the belief that this could induce miscarriages. Gerald in his classic Herbal reports its use in Wales as an aphrodisiac. Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.) noted that the cyclamen was a symbol of lust because of its use as an aphrodisiac. Modern science has not been able to prove any such power over erotic behavior, but at least one study has shown that saponins from cyclamins function as spermicides, so quite possibly the ancient belief that it increased sexual potency was promulgated by Sacred Harlots who whipped out the cyclamen salves for secret reasons different from what they told eager worshippers or sailors.
Needless to say, none of these uses are wisely pursued today, though the occasional modern herbalist armed with a great deal of superstition & not much science or common sense do occasionally risk the health of the public recommending mashed cyclamen tubers for sundry baseless uses.
Later works such as The Dispensatory of the United States of America (1918) are clearer about the dangers of attempting to use cyclamens medicinally, stating, "The corm is a drastic cathartic, & is used to cause abortion, but has in such cases produced fatal gastroenteritis."
A medieval Armenian fable recorded by Mkhitar Gosh (1130-1213) makes light of the belief that cyclamens are good for all ailments: Once there was a man who when ill ate a cyclamen & got better. Believing cyclamens were therefore a miracle for everything, he went out & dug up many cyclamens & boiled them in a stew. Tubers, rhyzomes, leaves, flowers, stems, seeds, all of it boiled together. He devoured this potion & became violently ill, vomiting & farting. A cyclamen which had managed to avoid being dug up saw the man puking in the yard & laughed up at him, saying, "To those who know it all, I am useful for everything!"
Despite their toxicity sufficient to cause painful gastrointestinal pain & death, in the Near East cyclamens are a delicacy. Drying them before preparation reduces their acridness, then roasting them breaks down the toxins so that they are safely eaten.
Pigs root them up & can eat them raw without injury, for which reason they have the common name Sowbread. Similar folknames include Hog's Bread, Swinebread, Groundbread, & Stag's Truffle.
Cyclamen coum ssp coum, 'Crimson' Patternleaf
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