When searching for a good plant for a difficult situation, such as a groundcover for dry shade that has pretty flowers and attractive foliage that will spread without getting greedy…*
…Epimedium ssp. will turn up every time, and with good reason.
Above: Epimedium x rubrum
Hardy in USDA Zones 5-9, unattractive to deer and rodents, spreading by rhizomes but in an acceptable way here in the hot, dry summers of Southeast Tennessee Zone 7a, the story of how the Epimediums have fared, or faired as we like to spell it, here is one of plant perseverance.
Above: The Unknown Epimedium
Under the spreading branches of the mature red maple affectionately named Ferngully, click here for the story which was one of our very first posts back in December of 2007, there was planted a wildflower corner. Mosses were gathered along with ferns and early spring ephemerals to populate the only shady area on our property. To fill in the blank spaces, several Epimediums were purchased from our local nursery, Mouse Creek. (A couple were also ordered from Hinkley’s Heronswood, but they did not survive what happened next.)
Above: New spring foliage
Soon afterwards, Ferngully showed signs of imminent death and was taken down to prevent damage to neighboring properties as well as our own. It was a sad day. The sunshine was now glaring down upon the woodland wildflower corner with the protective tree gone, and many of the wildflowers perished, but not the Epimediums. They hunkered down and kept growing and spreading until the replacement trees grew large enough to provide shade once again.
Above: Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’
Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’, the yellow flowered lovely featured here has been the most robust. Epimedium x rubrum and an unknown that almost looks like a cross between the two, with a reddish veil on the top of the upper petals and yellow below have done well, stretching beyond their initial planting but in a way that is well within the bounds of garden etiquette. Joining into the group is Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’ with lavender petals and most recently Epimedium x youngianum ‘Niveum’, with white wings was planted in the area for more diversity, shown above.
The foliage emerges in shades of pink, purple and crimson in spring after the bloom period. The old foliage is cut to the ground in late winter to not obsure the flowers. Here the flowers open in March, lasting into early April in most years. In fall, the colors again brighten the shady space with oranges, yellows and reds.
Above: The Unknown Epimedium
The common names include barrenwort, bishop’s hat, and my favorite, fairy wings, among others for this workhorse perennial. Epimediums typically grow to about a foot tall and can be evergreen in milder climates, like ours, but cutting the foliage to ground level with manual hedge shears allows the flowers to be better seen and who would want to miss that show? We usually remember to do the cutting of the Epimediums at the same time as the hellebores are cut, in January.
Above: Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’
The idea is to feature winter plant portraits to help pass the days until gardening resumes. Scouring the photo files triggers ideas both for plantings and posts. The Epimediums are not blooming here now, the last week of January. The images are from springtimes of the past, the better to plant the seeds of dreams.
*The opening photo is of Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ backed by Primula veris, taken March 19, 2012.