Bleeding hearts (Dicentra sp.) get all the love. Cute name. Delicate foliage. Distinctive blooms. Yet there is another spring blooming perennial I get even more excited about. Whether you know it by the common name Bishop’s hat (UK), barrenwort (USA) or the botanical name Epimedium, this perennial deserves your consideration for a space in the shade garden.
Many species are evergreen, forming weed-smothering carpets of heart shaped leaves. The new spring foliage often exhibits striking colors – red margins, copper shades or distinctive veins, while the rainbow-hued flowers dance high above the leaves on impossibly slender stalks, each blossom resembling a thimble-sized fairy hat.
Epimedium lend themselves to exciting design combinations that highlight either the foliage or flowers, or in their quiet season may serve as a foliage picture frame for other more showy companions. In fact I would encourage you to plan ahead and deliberately purchase companion plants at the same time as these perennials to make the most of them.
Here are some of my favorite plant partnerships to get you thinking.
Shades of lavender and rose
Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’, seen here with dark purple heuchera and a silver dusty miller in the background
Lilafee has long been a favorite of mine. While evergreen or semi-evergreen in milder areas, I find the foliage melts away on its own by late winter, allowing the lavender flowers and new red-mottled foliage to shine.
Enhance the lavender blooms by pairing it with shades of pinky-purple and silver such as Pink Frost hellebore and Japanese painted ferns , or purple heuchera and silver dusty miller as shown above.
Lilafee dancing next to Iris ‘Gerald Derby’. Design by Mitch Evans.
Or celebrate the brief moment in time when Iris versicolor ‘Gerald Darby’ sports dark purple tones at the base of each blade by planting it adjacent to Lilafee as shown above. Bright yellow Japanese forest grass adds a visual spotlight to the scene.
There are many other varieties with rose and lavender blooms, often bi-colored like a fuchsia.
An unknown variety of Epimedium echoes the color of a blooming Bergenia in the background. Design by Mitch Evans
In the photo above, the magenta flowers of elephant ears (Bergenia sp.) echo one of the colors of the Epimedium bloom while the elongated, dusky-lavender leaves also play into the color scheme.
The very first Epimedium I ever bought was Epimedium rubrum – mainly because it was the cheapest! It has given me decades of pleasure in several gardens, has continued to spread generously into mature clumps and looks good no matter where I place it, even in dry shade under conifers. The flowers have rose-red outer petals and the evergreen foliage has distinctive red markings in spring.
Epimedium x rubrum paired with autumn fern, Francee hosta and Spiraea ‘Ogon’
I have found it a good idea to remove the old foliage just as flowers are forming in late winter. When I forget to do that (as in the photo above) the old leaves can hide emerging blooms. I do love seeing that sweep of orange colored autumn ferns (Dryopteris erythrosora) above it though.
If you prefer orange flowers over purple, check out Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’.
Orange flowers of Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’ rise above a dwarf golden spruce. A deep violet Rhododendron in the background introduces a complementary color for maximum impact. Design by Mitch Evans.
Pairing dwarf golden conifers such as Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb’ with orange and yellow blooms of Amber Queen makes a showy combo in the shade as seen above. Notice how the deep violet rhododendron flowers in the background enhance the scene.
Still in the citrus theme, look for yellow blooming epimedium. Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’ is a vigorous, evergreen variety with golden yellow flowers and distinctive red-veined new foliage that will quickly create a stunning carpet under trees.
In my own garden I planted Epimedium × versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ , whose two-toned yellow flowers remind me of miniature jonquil. Play off the color of these blooms by pairing with yellow toned grasses or golden foliage then adding deep purple or silver for contrast.
A new planting of Epimedium × versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ with golden bleeding heart. I did try golden Japanese forest grass here but the rabbits ate it!
You can see the still immature grouping above. Since the rabbit population make it impossible for me to grow Japanese forest grass here – or any other grasses, I have just added several Jack Frost Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’) in the empty areas. If the heart shaped leaves of that solo beesia survive deer and rabbits I may add more of those too, as the foliage has subtle yellow veins. However, last year slugs had a go at the beesia leaves – there’s always something!
You’ll be seeing these perennials in the nurseries any day now. Which ones will you buy and what will you plant with them? There are so many to discover! They all do well in partial shade, many even in full shade. Average, moisture retentive soil is ideal but many also thrive in dry soil although their growth will be slower.
Ignored by deer and rabbits … usually …(last year “something” nibbled the emerging stalks of Epimedium x rubrum. Being so tiny it was hard to determine the angle of the cut and accuse the culprit!). Vine weevils can be a problem but otherwise these are really easy and low maintenance. They do not need to be divided although it is easy to cut through a section with a spade if you want to move a clump.
If you’d like to learn more check out The Plant Lover’s Guide to Epimediums by Sally Gregson (Timber Press, 2015) which features 126 commonly available varieties.
There are also several combinations using Epimedium in my latest book Gardening with Foliage First, co-authored with Christina Salwitz (Timber Press, 2017)
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