February 2013

Epimediums add color throughout the year


Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' plays nicely with other plants, including grape hyacinths (Muscari), in spring. Epimediums are an under-used, but terrific three-season perennial for the shade garden.(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

If you are bored with hostas for the shade garden, the experts at the recent Shade Savvy horticulture symposium at the Indianapolis Museum of Art offered up dozens of alternatives.

Next week, we’ll look at other recommendations for the shadier parts of the landscape, but today, we’ll explore Epimedium, one of my favorites.

Sometimes called barrenwort, epimedium is a great three-season plant that, once established, tolerates dry shade. Early blooming flowers on spindly stalks are followed quickly by green leaves with red markings. The red gives way to all green in summer and returns in fall, turning leaves deep purple. This time of year, we cut these hardy perennials back to the ground because the flowers will emerge soon.

Some epimediums from China are evergreen, retaining their foliage throughout winter, said Karen Perkins, owner of Garden Vision Epimedium of Templeton, Mass., a specialty mail-order company.

Most of what is readily available are a few cultivars of E. grandiflorum, such as ‘Lilafee’, or ‘Sulphureum’ (E. x versicolor).

Improved cultivars have flowers three or four times the size of what most of us grow along with more variation in foliage, Perkins said. The leaves of ‘Sweetheart’ (E. x rubrum) are edged in red. The leaves of ‘Sunshowers’ have red flecks in spring.

Granted, epimediums can be pricey, selling for $18 to $20 or more for a gallon-size pot. And the plant looks spindly in spring as it emerges from dormancy.

Despite its delicate looks, epimedium is one tough plant. It is slow to establish because its under ground stem, called a rhizome, is woody. The rhizomes on some other familiar plants, such as Iris and Canna, are fleshy. It usually takes three years for epimediums to develop into nice plant, Perkins said.

And, when you consider the multiseason attributes of this shade-loving perennial, the cost of epimedium does not seem so unreasonable.

Locally, Soules Garden has a good selection of epimedium, as does the IMA’s Greenhouse.