#28 Cyclamen


Photo by EKS

Also known as the Persian Violet or more colloquially, Sowbread (from stories that the roots are eaten by wild pigs), cyclamen are members of the Primulacaea or primrose family (Hogan 451). Their name has Greek origins; kyklos, meaning circle, can be applied to the flat round tuber, the slightly heart-shaped leaves, or to the way the stem coils after the flower has been pollinated (Ward 108). The flowers, one per stalk, have a distinctive recursive flare, spreading back from a round central eyehole, another circle. Blooming in late winter and early spring, the flowers come in a range of colors from white and light pink to a very vivid cerise. The native habitat of C. persicum -- the species of most cyclamen sold by florists --extends from Turkey and Israel around the top of the Mediterranean; some varieties such as C. hederifolium are hardy enough to grow in Britain. Penelope Hobhouse verifies the existence of cyclamen in British gardens as early as the mid 17th century (130, 132).    

The ten cyclamen which appear in Woolf’s writing spread into three thematic categories. Most numerous are the passing mentions of cyclamen in various locations, covering much of the plants’ typical range. She goes to Kew in January of 1918 and sees the dwarf cyclamen along with other early flowers such as snowdrops (D1 114).  When Jacob goes to Greece he enjoys the “wild red cyclamen” on the hills (JR 152).  A flirty letter to Vita in Tehran in March of 1927 compares Woolf’s own prose to cyclamen and violets flowering in Persia: “and the arid ridges of my prose will be seen to flower like the desert in spring: cyclamens, violets, all a growing, all a blowing”(L3 346). In April of that same year she writes Vanessa from Rome that she and Leonard have taken a day trip to Nemi where they “found wild cyclamen and marble lapped by the water” of a small lake (L3 367). Careful to note that the variety is wild (typically smaller and paler in color), Woolf seems to associate the florist variety with the Victorian past, a time when new brighter and bigger varieties were introduced, making the plant particularly popular.[1] When Virginia accompanied Leonard on a visit to Waddesdon Greenhouses in April 1930, she criticized the overwhelming number of the plants-- “Cyclamen by the hundred gross” -- asserting that the sheer mass maked the whole display “dead”: “Made planted, put into position in the year 1880 or thereabouts.  One flower wd. have given more pleasure than those dozen of grosses” (D3 300).

This reminder of the sometimes rather dated context of cyclamen introduces a second thematic cluster in which cyclamen are associated with maternal figures.  Writing to Pernel Strachey in 1923, Woolf recalls their first meeting in the drawing room of her Quaker Aunt: “There she sat in grey alpaca, with her geraniums and cyclamen about her, talking and talking” (L2 63).  Later Woolf evokes cyclamen and violets in her portrayal of the maternal figure Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse as a goddess of beauty in the eyes of Charles Tansley: “ With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets” (TTL 18).  The image is very similar to a photo of Virginia’s mother, Julia Duckworth Stephen, wearing a white lace scarf pinned over her hair and sitting with her hands full of delicate flowers which could include cyclamen, featured in Leslie Stephens’ Masoleum Book (facing p. 58). The text of the Masoleum Book, which Leslie wrote for his children and insisted on reading to them, explicitly connects his first wife, Minny Thackery, with cyclamen, recounting that she had so loved the flowers in the Italian Alps that they had brought roots of purple cyclamen back, some of whose descendants were planted on her grave (Stephens, Masoleum 22). It is fascinating to note that Woolf’s reference to cyclamen and violets in her letter to Vita occurred just before To the Lighthouse was published, providing yet another connection to a beloved female.

A third, rather idiosyncratic aspect of cyclamen for Woolf has to do with their similarity to women’s apparel.  The first time she makes this connection is on her initial trip to Italy in 1908 when she notices what she thinks is priest who had “had a white hat, like the petal of a cyclamen, on his head” (PA 385). I suspect that what she actually saw was a nun wearing the traditional cornette, a stiff, wimplelike headress with two recursive folds sweeping back like horns or butterfly wings which does bear a strong resemblence to a white cyclamen. Woolf repeats this visual simile  in a more secular context in the short story “Happiness,” written the same year that Mrs. Dalloway was published, where “women in the prime of life” trudge the streets “with starched cyclamen-like frills about their faces, and set lips and stony eyes” (CSF 180).  The comparison of flowers with the frills of women’s clothing also occurs in Mrs. Dalloway in the description of Nancy Blow who appears at Clarissa’s party “dressed at enormous expense by the greatest artists in Paris . . . looking as if her body had merely put forth, of its own accord, a green frill”(MD 173).  

Vogue July 1914   https://archive.vogue.com/issue/19140715

[1] https://www.cyclamen.com/en/consumer/find-out-about-cyclamen/cyclamen-stories/journey-through-history

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...