Epimedi­ums’ winged jew­els

Float­ing above the ground, the del­i­cate flow­ers of epimedi­ums hang like shin­ing gems over spring bor­ders

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Sally Greg­son is the au­thor of ‘The Plant Lover’s Guide to Epimedi­ums’, pub­lished by Tim­ber Press at £17.99. Copies can be ob­tained post-free from Mill Cot­tage Plants. CON­TACT www.mill­cot­tage­plants.co.uk.

in a shady bor­der, dainty flow­ers sparkle in the shafts of light that pen­e­trate the shrub and tree cover. Spi­dery blooms in pale sul­phur yel­low, rasp­berry red and soft orange sway above glossy spring leaves. These are epimedi­ums, their sprays of del­i­cate flow­ers stand­ing on wiry stems. Their clumps of fo­liage sprout from slen­der rhi­zomes, mak­ing per­fect ground cover for moist or dry shade. The ma­jor­ity of these grace­ful blooms open to re­veal four petals that com­bine in the cen­tre of the flower. These ex­tend into four long spurs, some­times in a con­trast­ing colour. It is this that prompted the com­mon name of Bishop’s Hat, as they were be­lieved to re­sem­ble a cler­gy­man’s biretta. The flower may have the ap­pear­ance of a coloured spi­der sus­pended above a clump of leaves. But there are many vari­a­tions, in­clud­ing many with­out any spurs at all. A mem­ber of the Ber­beri­daceae, or bar­berry fam­ily, epimedi­ums come in many forms. Some have ever­green fo­liage, while oth­ers are de­cid­u­ous. There are acid-loving, herba­ceous va­ri­eties from Ja­pan that thrive in dry shade. In con­trast, new ever­green species from China pre­fer light shade and rich soil, ei­ther acid or al­ka­line, ide­ally im­proved with leaf mould. For the last 100 years, the most com­monly grown have been more ever­green va­ri­eties from Europe and North Africa, such as Epimedium x per­ralchicum and E. x ver­si­color. These thrive in dry shade among dense tree roots. Long-lived, sturdy colonis­ing forms, they spread eas­ily across the ground. All win­ter, their clumps of ma­hogany fo­liage cover the ground. At this time, cut­ting them over with a pair of shears al­lows the flow­ers to bloom above new fo­liage later in March and April. If left un­shorn, the weath­ered leaves con­ceal the lit­tle flow­ers. Then, in spring, their tiny yel­low blooms shine like moons in a dark­ling sky. Be­tween 10 and 20 buds open up from the base, sus­pended from thin stems, 6-12in (15-39cm) tall, pro­tected by pointed sepals.

Epimedium x ver­si­color ‘Neo­sul­phureum’ bears clouds of cream and prim­rose yel­low flow­ers. The paler sepals are cupped pro­tec­tively over the lower lemon-coloured petals. Epimedium per­ralchicum ‘Fröhn­leiten’ is very dif­fer­ent in form. It has no sepals, and four but­ter-yel­low, spur­less petals, ap­prox­i­mately ¾in (2cm) wide. Be­low, the bushy mound of green leaves are mar­bled in bronze. These orig­i­nal va­ri­eties have pro­duced hy­brids that also tol­er­ate dry shade un­der trees, but are less in­va­sive. Ex­am­ples in­clude E. x warleyense. Its muted orange, spur­less flow­ers blend well with their new mar­bled, green leaves. Up to 10 grow on the stems, which are 1ft (30cm) high. This va­ri­ety ben­e­fits from cut­ting back in early spring be­fore the flow­ers ar­rive.

Ja­panese va­ri­eties

These easy-go­ing species were not the first epimedi­ums to be grown in Bri­tish gar­dens. In­stead, be­fore they ar­rived, gar­den­ers grew the herba­ceous Ja­panese E. gran­di­flo­rum and its rel­a­tives in the acid soil be­neath rhodo­den­drons, camel­lias, and mag­no­lias.

They end the sum­mer in a blaze of au­tum­nal orange leaves be­fore dy­ing back be­low ground. With one prim­rose-yel­low ex­cep­tion, E. gran­di­flo­rum ‘Yel­low Princess’, their dainty flow­ers come in shades of pink, pur­ple and white. Of­ten, their sepals are long, cov­er­ing the paler petals that end in white-tipped spurs. E. gran­di­flo­rum ‘Li­lafee’ has pur­ple sepals and white-tipped pink petals. The cherry-pink flow­ers of E. gran­di­flo­rum ‘Yubae’ have earned it sev­eral names, in­clud­ing ‘Crim­son Queen’, ‘Red Queen’ and ‘Ro­seum’. More re­cent va­ri­eties have been se­lected for larger flow­ers that cre­ate even more im­pact in the gar­den. The deep carmine-pur­ple petals of E. gran­di­flo­rum ‘Pur­ple Prince’ have long white-tipped spurs, be­neath large dark pink sepals. Ideal for the front of a bor­der is E. gran­di­flo­rum ‘Saturn’. This makes a low, 10in (25cm) mound smoth­ered in a con­fetti of lit­tle white flow­ers.

New­com­ers from China

For many years, that was it. Then, ap­prox­i­mately 25 years ago, new epimedi­ums were dis­cov­ered as re­mote parts of China be­came more ac­ces­si­ble. These in­clude plants such as Epimedium stel­lu­la­tum ‘Wu­dang Star’. This pro­duces clouds of sim­ple, spur­less flow­ers with four long, pointed white petals and yel­low sta­mens, like a swarm of moths in yel­low slip­pers. These Chi­nese species are ever­green, and have good, non-spread­ing man­ners. They pro­duce beau­ti­fully mar­bled and splashed young leaves in spring. A shady spot with ei­ther acid or al­ka­line soil is suit­able, as long as it does not dry out. Im­prov­ing drainage by adding plenty of leaf mould or gar­den com­post helps. The over-win­tered leaves ben­e­fit from be­ing ti­died up, rather than cut off. The old fo­liage pro­tects emerg­ing buds from late frosts. Within a few years of their in­tro­duc­tion, nurs­ery­men started to breed and select cul­ti­vars. They looked for ex­cep­tional flow­ers in a range of colours, with good new leaves, and strong con­sti­tu­tions. This re­sulted in plants with out­stand­ing young fo­liage, such as ‘Spine

Tin­gler’. This has long, very nar­row and softly spiny leaves, splashed bronze and red in spring. Its sprays of lemon yel­low and cream flow­ers have long pointed spurs. ‘Wild­side Ruby’ has bright red young leaves like a bon­fire crack­ling with tiny sparks of pink and yel­low flow­ers. In spring, the plant stands out like a bea­con across the gar­den. An­other se­lec­tion with clouds of small flow­ers is ‘Pink Elf’, with two-tone pink and light red petals car­ried well above the mound of fo­liage. It flow­ers in April and May as well as in­ter­mit­tently over the course of the sum­mer. The red-brown and cream sepals of ‘Honey­bee’ back the palest buff-apri­cot spurred petals that re­solve into a ch­est­nut brown mouth, like a flight of bum­ble­bees. One of the most dra­matic hy­brids, ‘Kaguyahime’, arose nat­u­rally in a Ja­panese nurs­ery. This has large rose-pink sepals that seem to en­close the pur­ple, short-spurred in­ner petals. The cen­tral sta­mens hang down like a bal­le­rina ‘en pointe’. The colour con­trast with the new young leaves is strik­ing. They are long and splashed with bril­liant ox-blood red, re­main­ing coloured well into the sum­mer. Eye-catch­ing plants, the new hy­brids eas­ily take cen­tre stage in a shady bor­der. There they de­mand com­pan­ions that set them off, rather than com­pete for at­ten­tion.

of spring, such as scil­las and chion­o­doxa. A lemon-yel­low form such as ‘Honey­bee’ con­trasts well with sky-blue Co­ry­dalis flex­u­osa in the spring sun­shine. Which­ever type of epimedium is grown, these shade loving plants are guar­an­teed to bring a splash of jewel-like colour to the dark­est places in the spring gar­den.

The cop­pery petals of Epimedium x warleyense, with its smaller, in­ner yel­low petals, pro­vide a burst of colour above its bright green leaves edged in cop­pery orange (above left and cen­tre). E. gran­di­flo­rum ‘Yubae’ (also known as ‘Ro­seum’) has sprays of nod­ding, broadly bell-shaped pur­plish-pink flow­ers ¾in (2cm) across in mid-spring (above right).

The long, ici­cle-like spurs of E. gran­di­flo­rum ‘Li­lafee’, a Ja­panese va­ri­ety flow­er­ing in mid to late spring. The sprays of bowl-like spur­less flow­ers of E. per­ralchicum ‘Fröhn­leiten’ (above left) lack sepals, un­like the yel­low clouds of Epimedium x ver­si­color ‘Neo­sul­phureum’ with its paler sepals (above right).

The deep vel­vety hues of E. gran­di­flo­rum ‘Pur­ple Prince’. › Epimedium stel­lu­la­tum ‘Wu­dang Star’ has both a height and spread of ap­prox­i­mately 14in (35cm).

Epimedium ‘Sphinx Twin­kler’ has elon­gated fine-toothed leaves. Elec­tric blue Co­ry­dalis flex­u­osa con­trasts with the red-brown and cream of E. ‘Honey­bee’.

The large spi­der-like flow­ers of E. brachyrrhizum are among the largest in the genus.

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