Make sure you are trading for the plant you want

Way back in the spring of 2006 I was on the lookout for epimediums for the shady west end of my garden. They still were rare enough then that most other online traders wanted exceptional and/or expensive plants in exchange for them. Speaking of shady, one trader who was supposed to be sending me an epimedium actually sent a yellow-flowered dead nettle (probably Lamium galeobdolon) plant instead and claimed she didn’t know the difference.

Needless to say, I was quite "nettled," since there is little resemblance between the two plants other than their short stature—not to mention that the lamium eventually crowded out much of my Vinca major ground cover. Fortunately, a more knowledgeable trader sent me Epimedium niveum, ‘Purple Pixie,’ and rubrum. Although the first two varieties shortly disappeared from my garden, I still have rubrum after 14 years, so I can nominate it for “most enduring epimedium.”

What is an epimedium?

Related to barberry and also known as bishop’s hat, barrenwort, or fairy wings, epimediums grow from rhizomes to heights between 6 and 24 inches. Their waxy and sometimes spidery, four-petal flowers, which can vary in size from 1/2 inch to 2 inches or so, are a bit hard to describe. Somewhat reminiscent of columbines, they often are “spurred” and/or “hooded” like medieval bandits.

Epimedium 'Pink Champagne'Those blooms, which appear in mid-spring, don’t last long. However, the graceful heart-shaped leaves on rubrum emerge a red-edged apple green, darken somewhat during the summer, and revert to red-tinged again in autumn for an ever-changing display. Other types may have mottled or variegated leaves, though not all of them are shaped like valentines.

Mostly native to China or the Mediterranean area, epimediums will grow in either partial sun or shade in rich and well-drained soil. The Mediterranean types can tolerate dry conditions better than the Chinese ones do.

Where epimediums grow

According to The Plant Book, my rubrum is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9, as reportedly are the grandiflorum and x warlayense species. That hardiness supposedly is reduced to zone 5 and up for alpinum, diphyllum, x versicolor, and x youngianum, while other species may be even more tender.

Epimedium ‘Orangekonigin'

Growing epimediums

I’ve seldom seen seeds offered for epimediums, probably because those seeds fall from the plants’ pods while green, about six weeks after bloom. The Pacific Bulb Society suggests that you sow them in your garden immediately, barely cover them with soil, and leave them in place until the following spring, at which time seedlings should emerge.

You probably won’t get any seedpods unless you have at least two different types of epimediums, since most are self sterile (can’t pollinate themselves). That explains the nickname of barrenwort. It also means that seedlings are likely to be hybrids, so propagation usually is by division instead, and the price often will depend on whether or not a particular species can be broken apart easily.

You might call epimedium a relative newcomer to the garden world, since a large number of new types were just discovered in the 1990s. We can hope that soon will make them more readily available. The plant also has a reputation as an herb for “sexual performance problems,” which means that some of its nicknames are less delicate than the ones I’ve included here.

Before using any herb, you should check up on its potential toxicity first. And, if you plan to swap for this plant, I’d ask to see a photo first!

Photos: The banner image of Epimedium rubrum is my own. The Epimedium 'Pink Champagne' photo is by Jan Sacks and the Epimedium 'Orangekonigin' photo by juanwillis, both from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles.