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

March 29, 2012 039 (2)
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’

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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.


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18 Responses to Epimediums

  1. Mark and Gaz says:

    You have a lovely collection of Epimediums there! They are great garden plants and we find them invaluable in our garden 🙂

    Hi Mark and Gaz, thanks for stopping by. The Epimediums may be lowly, but they are beautiful nearly year-round. Their only down time is right after they have been cut down, but before the flowers pop up. Right now, but we still love them.

  2. The last time the snow melted my epimedium foliage was fabulous. I can’t wait to see their blooms in spring.

    Hi Donna, good to know you have some Epimediums. They are wonderful and quite hardy sweetheart plants.

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I have a couple of epimediums. They do so well and are as you say well behaved. I love those delicate blooms. I will have to remember to cut backthat foliage. Sometimes the foliage is frozen back and I don’t have to worry about that little job.

    Hi Lisa, glad you hear you have some Epimediums, too. Not having to cut back the foliage could happen here, too, but it mars the photos to see the icky leaves, just like the hellebores. When I am too old and decrepit to be able to cut either the hellebores or epimediums, the flowers will be just as beautiful on both.

  4. Christy says:

    These are absolutely beautiful! Some of the blooms remind me of Columbines. I may have to try some in my garden!

    Hi Christy, thanks for visiting. The Epimediums are like miniature columbines, much smaller but very floriferous. When few tough flowering plants will grow in dry shade, these are standouts.

  5. My Kids Mom says:

    I’ve been given a couple, but haven’t realized their potential until now. I may move them to my now ivy-free hillside and see if I can get more.

    Hi Jill, glad to hear that you have some Epimediums. There were slow to establish, so be patient. I have spread them around by the shovelfull, the best way to divide them so the show is now much prettier.

  6. Laurrie says:

    I have come to adore these pretty plants, but at first, with their slow establishment, they were nothing to look at. For several years I said meh. Then, in year four they started to fill in and spread. Gorgeous! (I have ‘Frohnleiten’ and ‘Rubrum’) In early winter, before snow covers them, their evergreen foliage is shimmery and rich and fluttery. Thanks for this great profile of epimediums.

    (You can see why they are tough plants for dry shade when you try to divide and move any epimediums. They have tenacious roots and are very hard to dig up. If you can rip them out at all, they will take in a new spot, though. Tough, survivor plants.)

    Hi Laurrie, thanks so much. You are exactly right about the Epimediums taking a while to get going. I thought it was the sudden sunshine that made them slow starters here. It helped when I dug out clumps, usually from the middle and spread them to other spots. The E. Sulphureum is by far the most vigorous for me.

  7. I don’t have any epimediums–yet. They certainly look lovely in your yard. And I think it’s a great idea to do plant profiles while the garden is dormant. Garden book reviews are another idea.

    Hi Kathy, thanks. You do need some Epimediums if you have any dry shade. I try to save photos during the season of plants that are lesser known or not so showy as whatever blooms at the same time so gets bypassed as blog subjects. I don’t actually do book reviews, though might mention a book if it is pertinent to the story.

  8. I haven’t been a fan of epimediums before but your photos may change my mind. They’d be perfect in the area of my yard that l call “The Valley of Death” – under the oak and alder trees.

    Hi Sarah, thanks for stopping by. Do consider the Epimediums, perhaps they could overcome the battle of the large, thick leaves in your valley. My trees are all maples and dogwoods.

  9. We just have the tough sulphureum, but you have reminded me that we need to get more growing. Many thanks.

    Hi Green Bench, thanks for visiting. You have the best one of the Epimediums, in my opinion, although the unknown one is nearly as good. I am always on the lookout for more, though.

  10. gail says:

    I have a few and adore them all…Like you I could use more. I first saw them at Cheekwood, in shade, under canopy trees that sucked all the moisture out of the soil and I knew that they were perfect for Middle Tennessee’s dry summers. Thanks for the reminder to clear away the foliage or I will miss the flowers. Thanks also for crouching on the ground to get these lovely photos. xoxoxgail

    Hi Gail, glad to know you also have some of the little sweethearts. Without the foliage cut, they are easy to miss. They are perfect for our tough conditions, yes.

  11. Lola says:

    Wow, what an array of beauty. I guess it’s too hot here for them. Only winter would they do, I think. I have acquired a wild ground cover that is quite pretty [name escapes me at present]. Will just let it do what it wants for now.

    Hi Lola, thanks for visiting. I am not sure what zone you are in, but am glad to hear you have adequate ground cover. Those do help keep down the weeds and erosion and just look prettier.

  12. Kris P says:

    Your post makes me think of trying epimediums again in my zone 10. I tried 3 at my last house and, while they didn’t die outright, I can’t claim they thrived. My new garden has more room for dry shade plants so another try may be in order, even if I am pushing my zonal limits.

    Hi Kris, thanks for stopping by and good luck with your Epimediums. They sort of struggled here the first few years in the direct sun after the large maple tree was gone, but then got settled in and did much better. Extra water makes them a bit happier here. I don’t offer it, but sometimes the sky above does.

  13. Your photos really showcase these tiny beauties quite well. I like that they are not desired by rodents…does this include subterranean rodents? I have so many holes in my garden this winter with missing plants sticking halfway out of the holes.

    Hi Janet, thanks. You know how a macro shot can make just about anything look prettier than it might be in real life, but these are quite lovely, if sort of small. I feel your pain about those underground rodents. They have ruined many a planting here. So far, the Epimediums have not been bothered.

  14. Pearl says:

    Very nice collection!


  15. cheryl says:

    Your photos show their preciousness Frances, beautiful ! I planted one last spring and almost missed the blooms they were soooooo tiny but this year I’ll be on patrol for them. It spread nicely in its location and gave that area much needed greenery. I’m in Zone 4 and it survived! woooo hooooooo

    Hi Cheryl, thanks for sharing, nice to see you here. Good deal on the success in your zone with the Epimedium. The blooms are small, larger on the E. ‘Sulphureum’, and worth getting down low to give them a hello. Cutting back the foliage before the flower stalks emerge makes them even more enjoyable. Good luck with yours!

  16. I remember making a note about Epimedium rubrum during a garden workshop many years ago. I never did plant it, but you’ve reminded me how much I like it! I just have to find the right spot!

    Hi Beth, thanks for adding in here. Finding the right spot is a good idea. These are low growers and the flowers can be missed if they are hidden by taller things. I know you will find just the right place for one or more.

  17. commonweeder says:

    Epimediums are wonderful plants. I planted ‘Rubrum’ which was desscribed as the most hardy and it has done beautifully for years. More recently I bougt a yellow flowered epimedium at a plant sale and it is also thriving. I do think my zone has changed, too.

    Hi Pat, hooray for your Epimediums! You have the best of the best with Rubrum and the yellow Sulphureum. The weather is so unpredictable now, with plenty of extremes. Let us be glad for anything that will grow and tolerate what nature throws its way.

  18. I remember Professor Stearn, who wrote the definitive account on epimedium, appearing at the stand at the Chelsea Flower Show, where I was working , and cooing over the epimediums. Smitten by them ever since.

    Hi Catharine, thanks for sharing about how you came to love the Epimediums. I am envious of everything about your story!

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