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Not all fringes provide benefits

I have just finished reading a book about the history of plant breeding. It mainly concentrated on the introduction of food crops – wheat, rice and corn all feature heavily – but it also talks about the history of ornamental plant breeding.

Interestingly, it points out that the way flowers are changed is almost always the same. The fist imperative is to make the flowers larger, and if it is possible, to also double them. All roses, carnations and peonies had single flowers in the wild. The occasional flower that had extra petals was selected and bred from, until we eventually ended up with the multi-petalled varieties that we so favour.

Some flowers don’t look that good with extra petals. You can find double irises and even some double orchids, but they look like monstrosities, so they are quickly discarded – usually. There are a few double Japanese irises that are appealing, but most double irises are very unattractive.

For flowers that cannot be doubled successfully, another option remains – the flowers can become ruffled. That has certainly happened to an extreme among bearded iris, and large petunias. Some strains of pansies are also very ruffled.

Yet another trick can be the addition of fringes on the edge of flowers, and this week I think I saw the worst possible example of this – a range of pot plant cyclamen with heavily fringed petals – almost as though someone had gone past and crimped each of them.

It is a purely personal opinion, of course, but surely the classic cyclamen shape with very attractive upswept petals does not need this sort of meaningless ornamentation? Or am I just getting curmudgeonly as I age?

I have always had a soft spot for cyclamen. When we owned our nursery, we grew them by the thousand for the autumn market. We grew a variety of different strains to stagger the flowering period and grew a range of colours.

All potted cyclamen descend from one species, C. persicum, which despite its name, grows from Turkey through into the Middle East. In the wild there are several different forms, with flowers ranging from white through to red.

In the 1860s, the English took to breeding them extensively and, by careful selection, gradually doubled the natural height to about 15cm. They introduced a range of coloured forms, including striped and “fancies”. They also successfully bred out the sweet scent that the flowers have in the wild.

Fortunately, breeders have been working on reverse engineering these varieties and, by using the wild species again, have introduced several strains that have the glorious fragrance once associated only with the wild species. These varieties, which are readily available in garden centres, are also smaller growing, reverting back to the natural height range.

Most potted cyclamen will be long-lived if cared for. I once saw a huge plant with hundreds of blooms in the Wellington City nurseries, the prized possession of the head gardener. Ideally, they need a cool spot with dappled light – make sure you keep them away from draughts and heaters!

They are also relatively easy to grow from seed. The Head Gardener will attest to that. She popped a potted plant into the garden bed at the back door and forgot that it was there. It must have flowered and set seed as the following season a stunted cyclamen appeared in the gap between the back step and the pathway. A tiny tuber formed, and very small leaves were soon seen. It was so entrenched in its position that we could not extract it and pot it up.

They will grow outside if they are protected from the worst of the frost. For that you need to make sure the soil is very free draining, and that the site does not warm up too much. I think a spot at the edge of trees and shrubs suits them well and is where they grow in the wild. A south or east facing site is probably best for them.

The range of colours today is startling. As well as reds, white and pinks, there are a number of strains which have two-toned flowers, usually a lighter base colour with a contrasting splash or rim of red. I find these very attractive.

Of course, there are many other species of cyclamen, even smaller than C. persicum. The best known of these is the ivy-leaved species C. hederifolium. This is an autumn flowering species with winy little butterflies of light pink or white flowers, usually accompanied by nicely marbled leaves. A similar species, but later flowering, C. coum, also has marked leaves sometimes, but some forms have rounded pewter-shaded flowers. These two species are very hardy and will cope with a wider range of conditions outside. They also make pretty little potted plants when they flower.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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