The day that Woolworths accidentally sold me an endangered species

Charles Quest-Ritson reminisces about the day his bargain purchase of a cyclamen in Woolworths proved to be something rather special.

In June 1969 – I was at university and most of you were still unborn – I bought a bag of cyclamen corms in Woolworths. They were labelled C. neapolitanum, which was the name then given to the hardy autumn-flowering species that we now call C. hederifolium.

I planted them in shallow trays, so that I could enjoy their flowers in our conservatory before planting them out later in the autumn. When they flowered, I noticed that their petals had little notches at their tips, a characteristic I hadn’t seen before.

My parents lived in Wiltshire and I knew Oliver Menhinick, the great plantsman who was then Director of Horticulture at Lackham, our county horticultural college. I asked Oliver if he’d ever seen cyclamen with a frilly edging before and he replied that, actually, my plants were a very rare species called C. mirabile, which came from a small area within that corner of south-west Anatolia that the Ancient Greeks called Phrygia.

Cyclamen mirabile

Plant collection in Turkey was completely unregulated in those days and millions of bulbs and corms were dug up and exported every year, mainly to Dutch wholesalers who packaged them for retail. Which is how I came to buy them in Woolworths.

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In the event, ‘my’ cyclamen were a turning point in the conservation movement. Botanists reported that C. mirabile was known only from two sites and that one of them had been completely wiped out by collectors. The fate of the species spurred the birth of CITES ( the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in 1975 and the eventual listing of Cyclamen species as plants that couldn’t be traded – not just C. mirabile, but all species of Cyclamen, even the common Mediterranean ones such as C. hederifolium and C. repandum that one sees in every roadside verge in Italy.

The popularity of cyclamens has not abated, nor has the gardeners’ demand for them and Turkey now exports even more rare bulbs and corms of every sort than ever before. However, they’re grown in such a way that they’re farmed ex situ, not collected in the wild from naturally occurring populations. It’s often quoted as a success story that proves the value of CITES.

“I shan’t grow C. mirabile again. I can’t be doing with plants that aren’t reliably hardy”

I’m very fond of hardy cyclamens and have always tried to grow lots of them. I was unlucky with my corms of C. mirabile, because they turned out to be much less hardy than C. hederifolium. They disappeared in the very cold winter of 1978/79, as did C. cilicicum and C. creticum, both acquired in pre-CITES days. In fact, the only species that can safely be regarded as hardy all through the British Isles are autumn-flowering C. hederifolium and winter-flowering C. coum.

I know about C. coum, as I once saw it growing at an elevation of 9,000ft on the Sukhumi Military Highway in the Caucasus mountains, but there it flowered when the snows melted in June. It’s a cheerful cliché of winter gardening to grow it among snowdrops, but, in the Caucasus, it made its appearance underneath purple rhododendrons and yellow azaleas, whereas the local snowdrop – Galanthus woronowii – was a feature of open pastures.

As for C. hederifolium, it has taken to cultivation in Britain so well that it’s now found as a garden escape in country areas, especially on chalk downlands, its seeds transported by ants attracted by the sticky covering. When they’ve licked it all off, the ants abandon the seed, which germinates quickly thereafter.

You have to make a note to gather your cyclamen seeds before the capsules open out and the ants come foraging. I try to do this in mid June, but was a bit late this year and left it until the end of the month. Greatly to my surprise, I found several plants of C. hederifolium in full flower. Then I remembered that we’d had a dry spring and a hot start to summer, followed by torrential thunderstorms. The cyclamen had clearly interpreted the hot dry weather as a Mediterranean summer and the rains as harbingers of autumn.

I shan’t grow C. mirabile again. I can’t be doing with plants that aren’t reliably hardy and, after all, it was C. hederifolium that I’d wanted all those years ago.

Charles Quest-Ritson wrote the RHS’s Encyclopedia of Roses