It’s difficult to say why, but I always feel a touch of joy when I spot an epimedium. These delightful spring flowering plants with delicate flowers and handsome leaves are neither glamorous nor showy. They are demure, discreet, a little shy, and can be slow to establish.
In the wild Epimediums are found in woodlands of China, Japan and eastern parts of Europe. The flowers, which can be white, yellow or reddish pink resemble little school caps. Some are topped with long spurs making them look like four-cornered hats, hence the common name 'Bishop's mitre' or 'Bishop's hat'. The flowers are carried on wiry, thread-like, branched stems that dance above a mound of low, spreading, oval, leathery leaves. Some varieties have evergreen leaves, others have leaves that die back in autumn.
Epimediums grow from slender rhizomes, allowing some varieties to cope with dry, shady areas (even those found near leylandii hedges), while others require a damper spoil in partial shade. Once established, they are incredibly tough and long lived, requiring little attention. I've had no problem growing them in full sun, but they do need soil that retains some moisture.
Twenty years ago there were very few species around, but over the past ten years or so new plants have been introduced from China, resulting in a swath of new hybrids. Not all of these new species are worth making space for in the garden, they are collector plants. I think that many of these new plants need to be trialled before recommending them for garden use
Epimediums worth growing
The first epimedium I grew over 25 years ago was Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum'. A tough plant it produces a profusion of small, straw yellow flowers. It grows into quite a broad plant, the leaves are evergreen, and it doesn't mind dry shade. In fact I have grown it near a leylandii hedge.
For a smaller plant you cannot go wrong with the grandiflorum types. E. grandiflorum ‘Niveum’ has little pure white flowers that are useful for brightening up shady areas. ‘Lilafee’ produces pinkish red flowers with long, spurs. E. grandiflorums are not evergreen, but the new leaves as they emerge, are bright green and become red tinge as they age.
Epimedium pubigerum might not hit you in the face, but the creamy, pearl-like flowers create a pretty, airy mist. It is just delightful and quite tolerant of dry soils.
Epimedium x rubrum is just lovely. The flowers are small with reddish tops and cream inner petals. They dangle above evergreen leaves that become red in autumn.
One of the new hybrid I really like is Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’. I first saw this at an R.H.S. show in the Westminster Halls. Dan Pearson also spied the last 3 plants on the sales table. After a little discussion I bought 2 of them before he got his hands on them – sorry Dan. A lovely plant, this produces long, branched stems of smallish copper-orange with long spidery spurs. It flowers a little later than some of the other varieties, around April instead of March. This needs a dampish soil.
‘Pink Elf’ is also new and a pretty little thing with fluttering spurs on its tiny, pink flowers and evergreen foliage.
This is only a small proportion of what is available. I don’t know how many epimediums I am trying out, but when they have been trialled for a while more will be added to our mail order list. So watch this spot.