Bergenia cordifolia

Miss Gertrude Jekyll, high priestess of the foliage cult, made lavish use in the gardens she designed of Bergenia, then known as Megasea. She used bergenias in large drifts of ground-cover ‘running back here and there among taller plants’. She planted them in long ribbons to soften the hard edge of paving. She picked the coloured leaves in winter to arrange in bowls with Christmas roses or forced hyacinths, for she gave much thought to flowers in the house.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Purpurea’, a hardy perennial of the saxifrage family, is, indeed, a great carpeting plant, especially in winter, when the round, leathery, evergreen leaves are suffused with purple. It flowers in spring with (I regret to say) rather gaudy clusters of magenta bells on top of thick red stalks. Even Miss Jekyll admitted that the flowers were coarse, ‘but the leaves more than compensate’. There are other bergenias with pink, white or purple flowers and a variety of winter leaf colouring. Bergenia crassifolia has perhaps the most exciting leaves; they are crinkly and grow upright, revealing their red-veined backs as well as the upper surfaces of rich red and mahogany. The flowers are light pink. Both are natives of Siberia of infamous reputation, but I have read in Russian memoirs that the scenery and the flowers are superb when the cruel winter is past. Bergenias will thrive almost anywhere except under greedy trees or shrubs, but they grow well in the dry shade of walls or buildings. Small pieces planted 12 inches (30 cm) apart will clump up to form a solid carpet impervious to weeds.

This little cyclamen is a native of dry woods in the Mediterranean – I have seen it so massed in a copse in northern Italy that one had to pick a careful path among the plants. The exquisite pink flowers with laid-back petals perch like butterflies on short stalks which grow from flat corms. These are tiny in youth, growing larger every year until, in healthy old age, they look like tea-plates. The cyclamen flower in autumn, and, as they die. Each stalk coils like a spring back on to the corm, scattering its seeds, and the famous dark green leaves appear, ivy-shaped and marbled in silver, the pattern varying from plant to plant. They remain evergreen through the winter, a great attraction in the leafless months, and die away in late spring.

This cyclamen is quite hardy and easy to grow in well-drained soil, whether acid or alkaline, in a dry, shady place. Plant the corms, which must be pot-grown, not bought dry in packets, just below soil level, 6 inches (15 cm) apart, whenever-available (probably in spring) under deciduous trees or shrubs, which will allow them summer shade and winter sunlight. I have seen them in pink drifts under an oak tree, in another garden under a larch. And, in Mrs Margery Fish’s cottage garden in Somerset, making a pink ribbon in the shade of a hedge.

When the leaves die down, mulch the cyclamen with leafmould, and when seedlings appear near the corms, as they will in plenty, pot them up and keep them under glass for a year for their own safety. If you have no glass, many will survive in the open, but birds, mice and slugs are their enemies in babyhood. Mrs Fish also propagated cyclamen by the rash method of cutting corms into pieces, each one of which would grow.

A lovely pure white form, ‘Album’, flowers rather earlier than the pink form, and does not seed so freely.

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