Epimediums’ winged jewels
Floating above the ground, the delicate flowers of epimediums hang like shining gems over spring borders
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.
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.