Alys Fowler: cyclamen

Cyclamen hederifolium: The foliage is magnificient now. Photograph: Getty Images

I decided to give the dog complete autonomy, and ended up following her into a bit of wood we don’t usually trample and where she delighted in smelling just about every leaf individually. I went looking for my own fun and there to my delight was a huge patch of Cyclamen hederifolium, the ivy-leaved cyclamen. The leaves were resplendent among the rotting debris. I parted them carefully and felt for the tuber among cold, damp leaf mould. It was the size of a saucer.

C. hederifolium‘s foliage may be magnificent right now, but the round-leaved cyclamen (C. coum) is in full flower, and that is something to cherish. This cyclamen comes from around the Black Sea and is incredibly hardy. It blooms from winter to spring in variations of magenta, pink or white, with a darker blotch at the mouth. It’s the sort of thing you don’t take much notice of until now, when those tiny, brilliant, gently scented flowers are so surprising in the gloom of winter.

The tuber never grows terribly wide, reaching 6cm or so at best. Its roots appear from the centre of the bottom of the tuber, whereas C. hederifolium‘s roots do the opposite and appear from the top. This detail matters greatly when planted, because if you get C. hederifolium upside down, the tuber sulks, much like anyone made to stand on their head might.

Both cyclamen like the same conditions: free-draining, dappled shade to full sun, so it would be nice to imagine intermingling them for a continuous carpet of flowers from autumn to spring. But C. hederifolium tends to muscle out C. coum, so plant the latter near the house or on a path you regularly take: hide it at the bottom of the garden and you’ll forget to go and see it.

Both species will self-seed and can naturalise. C. coum is a wonderful ground-cover plant for dappled shade. You can even get it to naturalise in grass. It does best in poor grassy areas, such as banks or under trees, and won’t mind poor soil, especially if given a little extra leaf mould or bark chippings to start off. But you cannot cut the grass till July, to allow the seed to set and fall.

The seed heads are lovely things. Once the flower fades, the stem coils, pulling the rounded vessel of a seed head here and there. If you peek inside, it is filled with sticky, dark orange seeds; the sticky coating is to attract ants to disperse the seed. You can transplant seedlings if they appear in the wrong place. This is best done when they’re “in the green” – that is, just after flowering and before summer dormancy.