Fundamental Facts

HARDINESS: Zones 4 to 8
PREFERRED SOIL pH: Near neutral
PREFERRED LIGHT: Full to partial shade
ATTRIBUTES: Reddish leaves; white, yellow, pink, or purple flowers; for groundcover
SEASON OF INTEREST: Nearly year-round for foliage in mild climates; spring for flowers
FAVORITES: E. alpinum 'Rubrum', E. x perralcbicum 'Frohnleiten
QUIRKS: Flowers usually emerge before leaves
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Astilbe, fern, hosto, Japanese maple, other deciduous trees
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: Full afternoon shade; fertile, moist soil
RENEWING Lives many years; divide PLANTS crowded clumps in late winter
SOURCE: Bedding plants, division
DIMENSIONS: 6-10 in (15.2-25.4 cm) tall and up to 18 in (45.7 cm) wide

Epimedium in the Landscape

Imagine a group of plants that tolerate shade and drought, thrive on neglect, flower profusely in many colors, are untroubled by pests and disease, and are often evergreen. Wishful thinking? Not at all. It's the genus Epimedium.

Also called barren wort, epimediums flower early in spring, before the leaves appear. The heart-shaped leaves are often tinged red for a few weeks, then fade to medium green. When cold weather comes, the leaves are again blushed with red and often persist through winter in mild climates.

Epimediums spread slowly by rhizomes, or fleshy roots, to form a groundcover carpet 8 in (20.3 cm) tall.Try combining them with other plants that have reddish foliage, such as red-leaved Japanese maples, bronze-leaved heucheras, or red-flowered astilbes with reddish stems.

A Gallery of Charmers

For colorful, red-tinged foliage and showy pink-and-white flowers, go for E. alpinum 'Rubrum'. Evergreen where winters are mild, it is deciduous in Zones 4 to 6. Another good choice is E. grandiflorum 'Rose Queen', which has bronze foliage. Of the evergreen epimediums, the best for winter foliage retention in cold climates is E. x perralchicum 'Frohnleiten'. Its substantial leaves display dramatic red leaf margins in spring, turning green in summer and bronze in winter. In spring, 'Frohnleiten' holds its medium yellow flowers well above emerging foliage. Other species are available with white,mauve, red, or purple flowers. For the best effect, choose plants with one bloom color and let them form a colony.

Growing Epimedium

Grow epimediums in full to partial shade. They appreciate friable soil and even moisture, but in cool areas they are very drought tolerant once established. Although they contend with poor soil and tree-root competition, amend sandy or clay soils generously with organic matter before setting out purchased plants. Plant them 10 in (25.4 cm) apart and water regularly the first season. Apply a 3 in (7.6 cm) thick layer of organic mulch to retain soil moisture, pull out any weeds, and be patient. Epimediums often do not show vigorous growth until their second season. Thereafter, new stems will routinely knit themselves into a lush groundcover in early summer.

For the best floral display, cut back old foliage in late winter before flower stalks emerge. In cool climates, protect evergreen epimediums from the winter wind to help them hold their leaves. At winter's end, pick off tattered leaves to help make way for the new crop.

These tough plants are nearly impervious to disease, insects, and four-footed pests such as deer. And they need division infrequently because of their slow growth.To divide an overgrown clump, dig the rhizomes carefully, ideally in late winter before flowering begins. Cut them apart cleanly and replant immediately, discarding any sections that are damaged or shriveled.

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