I have developed a great affection for epimediums in recent years. They will never be the superstars of the herbaceous border but they are very useful perennials, which make excellent ground cover for difficult places, eg a dark corner or dry shade under shrubs and small trees. Some have very attractive, often evergreen foliage and the alluring petite flowers come in a surprisingly wide range of colours.
Most forms rarely exceed 12 15 in (30 38 cm), having very thin almost hair-like stems, but small does not mean delicate as, from my experience, they are as tough as old boots once established. I have had Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' in the garden ever since we moved here over 30 years ago. It has been dug up, moved, divided and transplanted many times with no problems and always comes up smiling. The flowers of E. x versicolor 'Sulphureum' are a light yellow and the evergreen leaves colour up an attractive light red in winter.
Although the flowers are small, they are always plentiful and give of their best in spring, May being the peak month. The flowers are unusual in having inner and outer petals, which can be the same colour or different with some lovely bi-coloured forms. The inner petals produce spurs, which contain nectar, the insect pollinators reward for visiting. Although Barrenwort is their common name, the flowers can look like a bishops mitre, which gives them their other common name of Bishops Hat.
The books will say cut away the old evergreen foliage at the end of winter (late February round here). This allows the new leaves and flowers to be seen earlier without distraction, but if the leaves still look good and are not turning dry and brown, I do not have a problem with leaving them on. They will eventually die back and disappear under the new seasons growth.
The next form I acquired as a pass on from a friend (always good plants those!), was Epimedium x perralchicum 'Fröhnleiten' (sounds like a German name but I dont know what it means) which has rich golden yellow flowers and delightful, love heart shaped, two-tone leaves, especially when young. The new seasons leaves are copper-red with the leaf veins remaining light green, very attractive. Another favourite is Epimedium x rubrum, an old bi-specific hybrid between E. alpinum and E. grandiflorum. This bicolour has pale yellow inner petals and attractive red outer petals. Although epimediums are well known as shade loving woodlanders, by necessity (I dont have enough shade for all my forms), I grow this in full sun on the allotment and it is fine.
Other varieties I grow are E. grandiflorum 'Lilafee', a deciduous form with gorgeous dark purple-violet flowers and E. x youngianum 'Niveum', another deciduous plant, not as big as other forms for me with pure white flowers. I have other forms but my newest acquisition is E. 'Pink Elf'. The evergreen leaves have a delicious purple hue when young in early spring and the flowers have pink inner petals backed by the palest lilac outer petals. If you like epimediums, it makes a very impressive addition to your collection.
First published in the South Pennine Group Newsletter, Spring 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 31.
© Copyright for this article: Don Witton
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.