Epimediums: Woodland plant whose time has come

Call them what you will – Epimediums, Barrenwort or Fairywings – these often overlooked, non-native plants don’t get the attention they deserve in the woodland garden.

But their time is coming.

Actually, according to garden author Allan Armitage, that time has already come. He wrote in his 1989 book Herbaceous Perennial Plants, that the Epimedium is “a genus whose time has come, with plenty of attributes and very few faults.”

I can’t agree more and although its time has come, there are still many gardeners unfamiliar with this plant. The word is getting out, however, and there are now hundreds of cultivars with many more still in the works.

Epimediums are easy-to-grow perennials that are grown more for their foliage than their beautiful early spring delicate flowers. They perform both as a ground cover in a shady or semi-shady area, or a specimen plant. Most grow to about 6-12” high in zones 5-8 and like rich humusy soil, but will do well in dry soil under a forest canopy.

Epimedium in our Japanese-inspired garden forming the perfect backdrop for the ceramic fish from Fish in the garden.

As gardeners begin to recognize the value of these plants both as a ground cover for their delicate “fairywing” flowers in multitudes of colours ranging from yellow to orange, red, pink, purple and various bi-color combinations, and as a specimen plant that boasts – much like hostas – outstanding foliage from spring through to fall, there is no doubt they will gain in popularity.

Unlike hostas, they are not bothered by slugs, deer or rabbits.

Epimediums are easy to grow, long-lived shade perennials that thrive in well-drained, humus-rich, moisture retentive soils.

Epimediums are an herbaceous member of the barberry family of plants, but unlike the woody members of the family, they do not share any of the invasive characteristics that have made the woody barberry family members such a bad reputation.

For the most part, Epimediums form either a low mound or slow-spreading ground cover.

They grow in shade to part shade in gardening zones 5-8. These delicate but hardy plants can put up with the dry soil once they are established and can do well under trees with extensive roots. Perfect for us woodland gardeners.

They range in height from 6” to 2.5’, but expect 12″ to 18″ from most established 3-4 year-old clumps, where they are often as wide as they are tall.

Their mostly heart-shaped leaves look their best in spring when the emerging foliage takes on a variety of colours including reddish colorations or markings depending on the variety.

Because they flower early in spring in clusters on long arching stems, they have value for pollinators.

While the flowers of the Epimedium are beautiful in bloom, it’s the foliage that attracts most gardeners to these plants.

Why are Epimediums not as popular as hostas

So why haven’t these plants captured the attention of gardeners? Maybe its the names they go by – Barrenwort sounds more like a disease than a beautiful plant – and Epimedium, even if you can remember the name, doesn’t quite inspire most of us to run to the nursery.

Cost is another factor. While there certainly are hostas with big price tags, even the more difficult-to-find hostas are coming down in price as propagators continue to do their work and make them more available to gardners.

Epimediums still have not reached this level of propagation and remain a little costly for many of us. Unlike hostas, Epimediums are slow spreaders and are best propogated by division. They grow slowly and spread even slower, but once they get established, they form substantial, well behaved clumps that add a delicate touch to a garden bed where other plants might struggle to grow.

The delicate flowers of the Epimedium lend themselves perfectly to the woodland garden.

How to use Epimedium in the woodland landscape

In our woodland garden, I have Epimediums growing in the front and back gardens, including two lovely groupings of the pink/red and white variety growing in the Japanese-inspired garden at the front of our home. The delicate, two-toned flowers and the elegant, soft foliage fits in perfectly and form the ideal hi-light for the garden statuary and moss-covered rocks. They also form a delicate transition from the river rock into the garden where they grow alongside an impressive ghost fern and native wild geranium.

Elsewhere in the woodland garden, you’ll find yellow versions growing along a pathway leading to the front door, another clump softening a mossy rock among the pachysandra and wild columbine.

In the back garden, I have placed more of the yellow Epimedium under a mature Linden tree and along a small stepping stone path of flagstone that includes a number of native woodland plants from trilliums, to geranium, ferns, columbine and groundcovers of Mayapple, wild strawberry and low-growing sedums.

In an excellent article about Epimediums on the Piedmont Master Gardeners site the following examples were used on how best to use the plants in the landscape.

  • Use it as ground cover in a mixed shade garden where it can fill in the spaces between trees.

  • Use it as a border along a woodland path where the foliage will soften the edges of pathways.

  • Use them as an edging or border in front of taller plants in a shade garden where their foliage can add a complimentary transition between the lawn and garden plantings.

  • Use them in a shaded rock garden

  • Use them for erosion control where the dense, rhizomatous root system can do its job of holding soil in place.

  • Plant them with other woodland plants such as Allegheny spurge, Columbine, ferns, hostas, lungwort and wild ginger, just to name a few, to create a beautiful woodland floor tapestry.

    Best methods of propagating Epimedium

Epimediums grow by underground woody rhizomes and should be divided in spring after flowering or later in early fall preferably after a rain.

The A-Z on Epimediums

If you need more inspiration to include Epimediums in your garden, look no further than Garden Vision Epimediums where they boast the “largest selection of shade-loving Epimediums for sale in the United States.

The images on the website offer a taste of what you can expect in your garden when you choose to add them. Be sure to check out their informative “About Epimediums” page for everything you ever wanted to know about the plants.

Here is a great link listing nurseries in the United States that specialize in selling mail order Epimediums as well as a list of sources that specialize in on-site sales. In Canada, most high-end nurseries will carry at least a few varieties, but for the ultimate selection, look no further than the folks at Fraser’s Thimble Farms, The rare plant specialists for an extensive selection of mail order Epimediums. They also specialize in rare orchids and other rare plants. UK gardeners should check out the selection at Burncoose Nurseries and mail-order firm. Their Epimedium Growing Guide will help give you a taste of what you can expect in your garden.

Back to the American growers. The Mission of Garden Vision Epimediums in the US is “Preservation through Cultivation” and they say they have many Epimediums that gardeners will only be able to find at their nursery located in Templeton, Massachusetts, about 50 miles northwest of Boston.

“A great diversity exists among Epimediums, but it is not readily available to the public. We gather these rarities, determine their true identity and propagate them for distribution. We think of ourselves as facilitators, spending a tremendous amount of time and money to acquire new plants, study, identify, test and propagate them quickly for sale to fellow collectors, propagators and gardeners. The price of a plant often represents the difficulty and cost of acquiring and/or propagating it, as much as its rarity. Many of the Epimediums you see here you will not be able to find elsewhere.”

Time to get planting fellow gardeners.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.


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