This is the time of year that I find the hardest to survive as a gardener. It’s cold. Everything is dead or dormant. Nothing is even venturing a bud, as far as I can tell. My ferns in the basement still survive, but they look forlorn and straggly. I always feel a sense of reproach when I go down there to water them. Even though there is little I can do about their condition, I feel like I should have done something better. Like if you had a dog with the mange. You know you’d take it to the vet if it looked as bad as my ferns. But I have never managed to keep a lush fern over the winter, even with grow lamps.
What else do I not like about this time of year? The garden center has been empty since early January with the exception of half-price wreaths and garlands that absolutely nobody wants. Maybe there are some hardy winter shrubs in the back, but basically my local garden center has looked like a freshly washed chalkboard since the beginning of the year.
And the light. The sun’s light is low on the horizon and there’s not enough of it. What light we do have is completely unfiltered by the South's trademark humidity that we are so proud of. It makes looking in the vanity mirror in my car as painful as trying on a bathing suit under fluorescent lighting.
I know there are some bushes with red berries here and there, and there’s the always reliable camellia, but their showy grandeur stands out among the dead grass and branches like a lady in a ball gown sitting in a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint. You know they don’t go together and you’re going to feel really uncomfortable until they part ways.
Even my pansies bring me no joy this time of year. Southern gardeners use pansies in the fall during the denial phase of our grieving process. We may have put all of our favorite plants inside for the winter, but pansies let us pretend that winter is not coming. If we don’t have a hard freeze, they survive, but don't thrive. Even the tiny blossoms they can manage now just reminds the Southern gardener how pitiful her situation truly is.
Then, lo and behold, in the midst of my winter despair, arrives the glorious cyclamen. Relatively cold-hardy but not frost-proof, the cyclamen brings glad tidings of the spring to come. They show up at garden centers at this time of year, just when Southern gardeners are convinced they have nothing left to live for. Proud and showy, they arrive just as the valiant pansy is dragging its bruised and broken knuckles off the playing field.
I would never say this out loud because it would make me sound like a snob, but the cyclamen just has more class than the pansy. Don’t get me wrong, the pansy is wonderful and reliable and hard-working. But they are just … well … common. Cyclamens are like pansies that have gone to finishing school. Even their names kind of say it all, right? Pansy sounds like a dotty grandmother or a milkmaid. The cyclamen, with its tall and graceful blooms pointing straight to the heavens they descended from, has a name that sounds more regal. Like an early queen of the Plantagenet line.
I have never managed to keep a cyclamen alive in a pot past June, and that’s OK. Cyclamens are ladies. They arrive right on time and always know when to leave. Like Mary Poppins. So if you are climbing the walls, looking for something to help you survive this bleak and frigid breach between now and our glorious spring, I highly recommend the lovely cyclamen. You will not be disappointed.