Originally from across Southern Europe, Cyclamen hederifolium was introduced in the late-1500s and became naturalised in the UK after escaping from gardens. The species was thought to be useful by various seventeenth-century authors, though they did not always agree on what the plant actually did.
The herbalist John Gerard recommended Cyclamen hederifolium for all manner of complaints. He wrote of powdered roots curing jaundice and “stoppings of the liver”, with that same treatment, when drunk with wine, being “very profitable against all poison, and the bitings of venomous beasts”. He even went so far as to say that the leaves, stamped in honey and applied to the eyes, cured “all impediments of the sight”.
Gerard also wrote of the plant’s use for less serious complaints, such as clearing “tough and grosse flegme” and removing “Sun-burning, and all blemishes of the face”. It does not only appear to have been used facially, either: “[the juice] doth open the Hemorrhoids, and causeth them to flow”.
Cyclamen hederifolium was used for aborting pregnancies threatening the mother’s health, according to Gerard and his contemporary John Parkinson. Indeed, Gerard seemed to believe the plant was so powerful that any pregnant woman so much as walking over them “shall be delivered before their time”. So concerned was he about this that he fenced them off in his garden “lest any woman should by lamentable experiment finde my words to bee true”. It is safe to say that a later (and better-informed) editor – Thomas Johnson – disagreed: “I judge our Author something too womanish in this... [his claim is] vaine and frivolous.”
One of Gerard’s other suggestions was that small cakes made from the plant were “a good amorous medicine to make one in love”. Sadly, this idea was put down too – by Parkinson this time – who believed the claim was “meere fabulous.” Gerard also wrote that “given in wine... it maketh a man drunke,” although the cyclamen’s contribution to this effect is debatable.
The Names: A leafy distraction
The plant now known as Cyclamen hederifolium is first recorded in the Botanic Garden in 1648 as ‘Cyclamen folio oblongo’ (long-leaved sowbread). Ten years later it was being called ‘Cyclamen autumnale folio angusto’, and ‘Cyclamen autumnale longifolium’ had also emerged as another name for the species. All of these names were combined for one dried specimen, labelled as ‘Cyclamen autumnale folio longo angusto’. That specimen was later given the much simpler name Cyclamen neapolitanum, which has since been recognised as a synonym for the species Cyclamen hederifolium.
The differences in these names are mainly due to botanists relying too heavily on the plant’s leaves to make their identification. While the leaves of long-leaved and ivy-leaved cyclamen specimens do have different shapes, other features of the plants are so similar that it makes most sense to classify them as one species. Cyclamen species have the common name sowbread for the simple reason that their loaf-shaped roots are said to be eaten by pigs.