Graceful woodlanders
Amateur Gardening|October 30, 2021
The elegant, dainty flowers of epimediums are one of the most useful ground-cover plants in the garden that light up awkward shady areas, says Hazel Sillver
Hazel Sillver

EPIMEDIUMS aren’t attention grabbers. Their flowers are small and delicate, and they grow in shady places. Despite this, they have a grace that makes them captivating, and they’re one of the most useful ground-cover perennials in the garden.

Commonly known as barrenwort, these shy shade-lovers hail from woodland and scrub in northeast Asia and Europe. In April, May, and June they produce sprays of small white, yellow, orange or pink flowers with spurs that dance on wiry stems in the breeze; since the flowers often resemble ship anchors, barrenwort is known as ‘anchor plant’ in Japan. In the gloom of a woodland garden, the paler forms are enchanting.

Beguiling flowers

‘Brimstone Butterfly’ has spidery primrose-yellow blooms; ‘Pink Elf’ has sugar-pink flowers with raspberry centers; ‘Amber Queen’ has sprays of copper-apricot flowers that look like jesters’ hats; and the beautiful ‘Niveum’ is a popular moonlight-white variety that transforms a dull, shady corner.

As well as having beguiling flowers, the leaves of epimediums are often spectacular. Some take on different colours in spring or autumn, and they can be heart or lance-shaped, papery or leathery, evergreen or deciduous.

Yellow-flowered ‘Fröhnleiten’ has evergreen foliage that is marbled red and bronze in spring, and colors again in autumn; the wonderfully sinister ‘Spine Tingler’ has long saw-edged leaves that emerge bronze-pink and mature to green, with pale-lemon blooms; and the white-flowered ‘Bandit’ has green leaves thickly rimmed with a band of claret.

Preferred conditions

Epimediums can take their time establishing, but they can be hurried along by giving them their preferred conditions. They love well-drained, damp soil that has been enriched with leafmould, and when they’re happy, they spread, providing such useful groundcover that you’ll wonder how you lived without them. In shade or semi-shade, they pair well with other woodlanders, such as forget-me-nots, wood anemones, dog’s-tooth violets, and ferns.

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