Fairy Wings, Bishop’s Cap, Barrenwort, Horny Goatweed; all delightful common names which are applied to the genus Epimedium (well maybe not Barrenwort and Horny Goatweed). Barrenwort refers to the medicinal properties of Epimedium, reportedly used to suppress pregnancy. I bet you can guess what Horny Goatweed will do for you. Bishop’s Cap, (referring to the long spurred forms, perhaps?) reminds one of headgear worn by certain religious leaders. My vote for best common name is Fairy Wings. The magical looking blossoms conjure up images of fairy tale flowers carpeting the forest floor. I’ve noticed when children visit our nursery and gardens, they pause as they pass by our Epimedium collection. “What are these?” they ask. The curiosity factor kicks in: here are plants which do not offer the more familiar flower shapes of daisies, saucers or spikes.
Botanically speaking, Epimedium are members of the barberry family, Berberidaceae, (no, they do not have prickers, but there is a similarity when you observe the flowers). There are Epimedium species native to eastern Europe and northern Africa as well as Japan, but the most species are found in China.
The basic Epimedium flower structure is composed of 4 outer sepals, 4 inner sepals (sometimes in the form of spurs) and 4 petals (the “cup” part) inside which you will find the stamens. Of course there are variations, depending on the species or crosses of these species of this large genus. Some selections have very short outer sepals, some have extra long inner sepals, and vice versa. Some forms have double sepals. Some forms have sprays of dozens of small flowers per stem, while others boast larger blossoms in both large numbers and small. The more you explore this genus the more subtle or extreme variations you will discover. Over the past 30 years numerous new selections have been hybridized and introduced by Darrel Probst of MA and Robin White of the UK, and we are indebted to both for making more of these great plants available.
Epimedium are easy to grow, but although they are often mentioned as a groundcover they do not spread that rapidly. They prefer a rich humus soil with partial shade, where they will grow most luxuriantly. That being said, Epimedium are quite adaptable and will perform well in dry conditions in deeper shade, making them useful subjects under trees and shrubs. Most Epimedium like a neutral to slightly alkaline pH, but I’ve been told that the grandiflorum selections prefer slightly acidic soil conditions. The foliage of Epimedium, besides being deer proof, is always attractive and offers interesting variations of size and coloring: small, elongated, mottled, banded, serrated and more. Some species are evergreen in milder climates, but the hardiest forms are usually deciduous. In either case, it is best to cut back last year’s foliage in early spring, before new growth and flowering shoots emerge, so last year’s blemished leaves do not mar the display. Blooming period, depending on what zone you live in, begins as early as March and continues well into May. Plant height varies depending on which cultivar you are growing, but most form low clumps suitable for the front of the border. Epimedium make excellent companions to spring blooming bulbs and perennials, such as woodland Phlox, hellebores and ferns, There are forms of Epimedium which are hardy into zone 3, but most selections fall into the hardiness ranges of zones 5-8.
Here are a few selections we are enchanted by. Perhaps you will fall in love with them too.
We have limited amounts of these selections from time to time. If out of stock, click to be notified when they are available next. We acquired many of our selections from Garden Vision, a nursery specializing in Epimedium, begun by Darrell Probst and Karen Perkins. Garden Vision has a new web page . Karen can be contacted at email@example.com for the current list.