Cyclamen are perennial plants in the family Primulaceae. The genus cyclamen has over twenty species, with wide geographic distribution. While most cyclamen are primarily spread across the Mediterranean region, several species are native to Europe, parts of the Middle East and Asia (Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Iran). Only one species, Cyclamen somalense, is found in Africa, thriving in the Al Miskat Mountains of Northeast Somalia.
The cyclamen flowers are small (1-2 cm) and grow on 15-30 cm tall, leafless stems. The flower petals are twisted and reflexed (upswept), giving the flower its distinctive appearance of a graceful bent. This evolutionary feature protects the pollen from rain. The color of the cyclamen flower can be white, pink, lavender or red, with a darker ring at the center. The foliage consists of thick, succulent, heart-shaped and dark-green leaves, marked with silver-gray patterns and often purple underside. Cyclamen flowers bloom from December to April, with a peak in February. An autumn variety of cyclamen (var. autumnale) blooms during the dry part of the autumn.
The origin of the word cyclamen is the Greek word kyklos, meaning a circle, ring or a globe, and its derivative kyklamenos, meaning circular. This is a reference to the round shape of the flower’s opening, and the bulb-like underground tuber (the thickened underground part the rhizome). Some old English folk names of wild cyclamen are: sowbread, swinebread, pig turnip and stag-truffle. This naming from the observation that wild pigs often dug out and ate the tuberous roots of the plant. In the Middle East, the cyclamen is also called ‘soap of the shepherds,’ because shepherds often used the saponin contained in the cyclamen tuber as a natural detergent that removed clothe stains.
Cyclamen flowers have a rich lore in many cultures. Spiritually, they are perceived as a symbol of devotion, sincere heart and empathy. They are often planted in churchyards and near Christian and Islamic monasteries (ribats) in the Mediterranean.
Cyclamen of Virgin Mary
In Christianity, the bent cyclamen flower is a symbol of modesty, humility and reverence. For this reason, cyclamen is compared to the graceful humbleness of Virgin Mary, at the time of her immaculate conception. The flower’s bent is later compared to her grief over the body of crucified Jesus, while the cyclamen heart-shaped leaf symbolized her aching heart. Also known as ‘Incense of the Virgin Mary’ and ‘bleeding nun,’ cyclamen flowers are sometimes used to decorate chapels and statues of Mary. Cyclamen incense was also used in churches dedicated to Mary. One of the Arabic common names for cyclamen is Bakhur Miriam, or Mary’s incense.
Solomon’s Cyclamen Crown
A beautiful Jewish legend tells that the Biblical King Solomon searched for the perfect design of his royal crown. For seven days his royal servants travelled far and wide, trying to find inspiration in the flora of the land. Whichever flower they would look at had some imperfection, either as a thorn, bad smell, or unfit patterns.
Despondent due to their failure to find the perfect flower, on their way back to Jerusalem, they noticed cyclamen flowers under a mountain rock. They immediately loved the flower, and so did Solomon, when they presented their choice to him. The wise King Solomon described cyclamen as enchanting, yet bent in humility before God. He compared its petals to the horns of the gazelle, the symbol of the Children of Israel. His golden crown was adorned with jewels in the shape of cyclamen, and he carried it for forty years. When Solomon died, everyone mourned, yet the grief of the cyclamens was unsurpassed. Centuries later, after the King of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, the sorrowful cyclamen flowers bent their heads further down. They remained bent ever since.
In a slightly different version of the legend, the best artists and craftsman of Israel came forward with their crown designs for King Solomon. Not liking any of them, King Solomon himself searched the mountains for the perfect floral design. Many flowers competed for his attention, but he did not like their arrogance and disdain. When he finally spotted the modest cyclamen under a rock, he immediately knew they were the perfect choice. They reminded him of the two traits of a good ruler — wisdom and modesty.
In tribute to King Solomon, the cyclamen flower is also known under the Hebrew name Netzer Shlomo (Crown of King Solomon).
The Jade Rabbit and The First Cyclamen Flower
Cyclamen were first introduced to China from Europe in 1920. The Chinese writer Zhou Shoujuan was first to note the resemblance of the cyclamen flower to upturned rabbit ears. A Chinese fairy tale tells the story of the origin of the cyclamen flower. Chang’e stole an elixir of immortality from her husband Hou Yi, and then escaped to the Moon, becoming known as the Goddess of the Moon. The jade rabbit was her faithful companion.
Chang’e, dearly missing her family, one day decided to pay a visit to Hou Yi. The jade rabbit, giving them privacy, chose to play in the garden. There he met a gardener and grew very fond of him. When it was time to return to the Moon, the jade rabbit took a flower seed from his ear and gifted it to the gardener. This seed sprouted into a cyclamen flower whose petals resemble the ears of a rabbit. Cyclamen is also called the ‘bunny-ear flower’ in the Far East.
Cyclamen as a Symbol of Lust
Since antiquity, cyclamen has been considered an amorous medicine. The Greek physician, botanist and pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides mentioned the use of cyclamen as an aphrodisiac. For this reason, the plant biologist Theophrastus, a successor to Aristotle, wrote that the cyclamen was a symbol of sensuality and lust. Cakes made of baked cyclamen tubers were consumed as a love potion. Cyclamen oil is considered a magical cure for a broken heart.
What Do the Various Colors of the Cyclamen Flower Mean
A delightful legend says that at one time, when the land of Israel was barren, all cyclamen in the world were white. The Lord of the Forest arrived to Israel, carrying large bags full of seeds, saplings and bulbs of all kinds. He had taken upon himself the task of greening the entire land of Israel. He labored hard and planted seeds in every nook and corner of the land. When the evening came, the Lord felt happy and relieved. He was certain that he had successfully accomplished his mission. But just when he was about to leave, content with the results of his efforts, a rocky hill complained that its soil was still completely devoid of any plant.
The Lord of the Forest acknowledged the complaint, but didn’t know what to do, as all his bags were already empty. The only choice he had left was to ask the plants from the valley if any of them was willing to relocate. All the plants refused, save the cyclamens. Happy with their humbleness, the Lord kissed them. The white cyclamen flowers blushed from the kiss, and turned their color into pink and magenta.
White Cyclamen Meaning
White cyclamen flowers often have prominent red circle at their opening. For this reason, they symbolically represent Mary’s sorrow (bleeding heart) during the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross. Another meaning of white cyclamen is innocence and purity.
Pink Cyclamen Meaning
Pink cyclamen flower represents a shy, modest and introvert personality. They offer support and strengthen one’s self-confidence, especially in times of uncertainty and adversity.
Red Cyclamen Meaning
The red cyclamen flower derives some of its meaning from the intensity of their color — they stand for romantic affection and love.
Purple Cyclamen Meaning
Purple cyclamen flowers stand for diffidence, distrust, resignation, separation, parting and lost love. Some of these negative meanings are due to the plant’s toxicity.
Interesting Facts and Characteristics of the Cyclamen Flower
- Certain cyclamen varieties are resilient to temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius.
- When the flowering is over, the stalk spirals, bringing the fruit and the seeds close to the ground.
- Wild cyclamen are categorized as endangered species in several countries under the multilateral CITES treaty.
- In the sixteenth century, Turkish Sultans used cyclamen as a chief ingredient for the preparation of a very special incense that burned inside the Topkapi Palace.
- Cyclamen flowers are pollinated by tiny moths without proboscises (elongated feeding tube attached to the head). When they enter the flower to eat the pollen, some it the pollen sticks to their bodies and gets carried to other flowers.
- The leaf pattern is unique to the cyclamen, with no two plants having identical silver-gray markings on the top of their leaves.
- Cyclamen reached their peak popularity in sixteenth-century England, where they were cultivated in the gardens of Queen Elizabeth I.
- During the Renaissance, cyclamen leaves were a popular herbal medicine ingredient. They were used to treat sores and boils, as well as to relieve ear aches. This, however, is not the most unusual application of cyclamen in traditional medicine. A quirky English traditional belief led people to put cyclamen flowers inside their nostril, convinced that this was an effective cure for baldness.
- Cyclamen are a culinary specialty among Arab people. The dish is made of cooked cyclamen leaves wrapped around balls of meat and rice.
- Leonardo da Vinci was very fond of cyclamen flowers. He drew them at the margins of his manuscripts.
- Cyclamen have been used as a traditional remedy against snakebites.
- Cyclamen are toxic to cats and dogs.
- Cyclamen is the national flower of Israel and Cyprus.
- Meghan Markle’s wedding veil was embellished with the flora of the 53 Commonwealth countries. Cyclamen Cyprium, the endemic cyclamen species of Cyprus, was also featured on the veil embellishment.
The Best Time to Gift Someone Cyclamen
The diverse symbology and folklore related to cyclamen often results in contradictory meanings messages. Cyclamen can mean love or resignation, fertility or death, good luck or goodbye. Before gifting someone cyclamen flowers, it is wise to consider the context of the situation and the sensibility of the recipient. Fortunately, a gift of cyclamen flowers is mostly seen as an expression of sincere feelings.
It is believed that cyclamen flowers ward off evil forces and bring good luck. Cyclamens bring back harmony and stabilize the vibe in a home where the family members have become alienated. This also applies to extended family homes, where cross-generational misunderstandings and conflict create long-term tension. This makes cyclamen flowers a perfect housewarming gift. When gifted to another family member, a pot of cyclamen flowers become an expression of kindness and support.
According to a traditional belief from Central and Southern Europe, cyclamen flowers give hope and strength to the desperate, and uplift the spirit. These flowers are a perfect encouragement gift to someone who is going through a difficult phase in life, or struggles to overcome stress and depression.
Traditionally, cyclamen is a popular symbol of fertility, since the shape of the flower resembles the uterus. People used them as herbal amulets that promote conception. A gift of cyclamen flowers is a nice way to celebrate the arrival of a baby in the family. It was once believed that cyclamen kept on the neck of a pregnant woman could ease childbirth. A contrary folk belief states that if a pregnant woman wears a cyclamen root or accidentally steps on cyclamen flowers, the child will be born prematurely.
Some sources consider purple cyclamen a flower of goodbyes. Potted purple cyclamen can be gifted to friends and colleagues who are moving to another place, changing jobs, or retiring.
Cyclamen varieties that bloom in autumn are often associated with All Saint’s Day. On that occasion, cyclamen flowers are placed on tombs, altars and burial grounds, to honor the dead.
Cyclamen flowers are almost never exchanged between lovers, because it is often seen as a symbol of separation. Red cyclamen could be an exception to this rule.