10 May 2010

Epimedium Excitement

One of the things I wax on and on about when giving talks or writing about plants is about the importance of loving foliage as much as flowers. If we select our garden plants with an eye to interesting foliage as well as marvelous blooms, we will never lament about the "midsummer meltdown" or about a lack of interesting things happening in the garden. Foliage is sometimes subtle, sometimes spectacular. Sometimes, it's almost more important than the flowers on a plant.

Epimediums make me very happy, especially now that I have some established in my garden and doing well. Their flowers are lovely, but they aren't what you call flamboyant, not like a big puffy peony or a perfect rose or a swath of lilies. No, epimedium flowers make you pause, flop on your tummy on warm dry grass, and take time to admire these small wonders. If you're at all prone to flights of fancy, you might think these are the equivalent of daffodils for the "wee folk" that inhabit some gardens. That's what struck me today, studying the flowers of this E. sulphureum species; yes, I know they have four petals, not six, but I'm sure the garden fairies aren't all botanists.

For most people, the epimediums--or if you prefer, barrenwort, bishop's cap, mitrewort, or fairy wings--are past blooming by now. In my garden, they're just pushing through the ground, or, as in the case of the new ones that trailed home after me on Saturday, they're sitting in the greenhouse waiting for the blasted winds to come down from gale-force so they can join those already in the garden. This is E. youngianum 'Niveum, with pure white flowers, one of the new ones, which I found--among many other treasures, though I resisted and didn't buy everything that caught my fancy--at Pleasant Valley Nurseries in Antigonish. This is a wonderful nursery, and I don't get to visit nearly often enough, but Phyllis and her staff do a great job of carrying a wide selection of reasonably priced, interested, and healthy plants. (Their new website is under construction, so it doesn't have a huge amount of information yet. You'll just have to go visit!)

From fellow plant geek, professor and inspiration Lloyd Mapplebeck in Truro, I picked up this wonderful E. x versicolor 'Sulphureum' to give to a friend who I think needs to get into these plants too. You saw the flowers up close in the top photo--now you can see the wine tinges of colour in the mostly heart-shaped leaves. These plants will gradually form nice little ground-covers in moist, partially shaded sites. Lloyd did tell me a couple of years ago that we can grow epimedium in more sun than other regions because we don't get so hot here in the summer. While they are quite resistant to dry soil if they're in shade, they want more moisture if they're going to be in a more sunny site. I tried doing just that and had great success after some frustrating tries in earlier years. Lloyd doesn't have a website yet, but you can see him every Saturday at the Truro Farmer's Market, along with several other plant enthusiasts. And he'll give you directions on how to get to his place. I know how to get there, but not so much how to tell others how to get there.

I'm sort of hard pressed to pick an absolute favourite mitrewort, but I am very charmed by 'Orange Konigin', or Orange Queen. Maybe that's because it was the one that first bewitched me and so I had to have it and am happily entranced by its flowers.

E. x rubrum is a nice plant, with very pretty cherry-red flowers lined in white, just as if they were the cap of some clergy. Leaves are a very brilliant green just edged in wine, and I like this one in more sun because its darker colour tends to disappear in shade.
And then there's this little charmer, E. grandiflorum 'Lilafee.' The leaves are significantly smaller than other species and cultivars, especially to start with, and boast a rich wine tinge to young foliage, which is meant to be mostly evergreen. The flowers are a lovely purple mauve colour and have long spurs, more like a miniature columbine than a daffodil now that I think on it some more. I've seen them describes as looking like little purple spiders, but I'm not a real arachnophile; Never mind about Charlotte's web, I'm more inclined to think Shelob's lair when dealing with spiders. 'Lilafee' came from Jane Blackburn's Woodland and Meadows nursery in Clifton, just outside Truro. She was set up at the site where I was giving a talk, and will be at the Farmer's Market in Truro starting next weekend. It's well worth visiting her nursery, especially if you have a longsuffering spouse with a fascination for trains, like Jane's husband does. Their gardens share space with some of Andrew's train memorabilia, including several actual train cars. It's a wonderful place to visit.
Like my other expeditions, Saturday was extremely satisfying--not only did I get to visit three 1/2 nurseries, I got to meet up with some wonderful people at the Bible Hill Fire Hall for the Central zone meeting, where I was speaking on four-season gardening. Including, of course, foliage. Before landing in Truro, however, I made the run to Antigonish, went to Pleasant Valley, and then on to Bill and Sharon Wilgenhof's place, The Willow Garden where a number of rhododendrons and hardy azaleas got into the car. The official Willow Garden plant sale is NEXT weekend but when I explained that I couldn't get there next week because of other obligations, Bill and Sharon kindly dug my rhodies and azaleas, plus some monarda and digitalis to add to my collection. Bill likes to walk me around the garden and show me what he's doing--he's a total inspiration and plant person, rather like my late friend Dick Steele--and only a few years his junior, too. Gardening keeps you young, obviously.

And though it was a day early, as I went past Trenton/Stellarton/Plymouth/Pictou, a shadow crossed my heart. 18 years ago, on May 9, 1982, the Westray Mine exploded due to a combination of deadly methane gas and coal dust, killig 26 miners. I didn't have time to stop and pay my respects on Saturday at Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park. But circumstances have me returning to Pictou County next week for a meeting with other gardeners, and I'll stop and leave a pebble on the big memorial stone to remind them that we honour and remember them always. And we swear to our politicians, "Never Again."


  1. Lovely epimedium. Love the pink ones!

  2. Oh, I LOVE epimedium! Wanted to buy one here but they were rather expensive. Wonder how they would do in the sunny, hot South? Ah well... this is beautiful, as always!

  3. Fairy wings! I first fell in love with empimedium Frohnleiten, but have been frustrated that it is slow to establish (at least where I have it, in dry shade... I do water it to encourage it to start spreading, and it is getting going a little now). Added Rubrum this year under a maple. As you say, the foliage is subtle but just wonderful. And who could resist anything called fairy wings?

  4. Very neat! I don't have any epimedium here but it might make a nice addition.

  5. I wanted epimediums for their foliage. I didn't even know they had flowers. I only have E. rubrum because it is so hardy. Your posting has made me think I could try branching out a little. thanks.

  6. You are so right, and foliage is something Jamie and I need to start considering more often when we are looking at plants. Beautiful shots...-- Randy

  7. I just started growing epimedium this year and I've one clump of yellow ones - they really look beautiful in all the other colours too - its like candy in a sweetie shop today looking at your pics Jodi.

  8. Had never come across epimediums before - but see whatyou mean about the foliage. bought some Heuchera this weekend, for the same reason.

  9. I must look on the Island and see if I can find any epimedium. How utterly elegant! Its time to peruse my local nurseries. Wonderful photo's! Cheers, Susan :)

  10. I'm not at all familiar with the epimediums, but Orange Queen is my kind of lady, and I agree that lovely foliage is so important for the long haul.

    I am glad to read your community has promised Never Again in response to that tragic loss of life. If only my people would agree to declare Never Again to the drilling in the Gulf...

  11. Thank you, my dear, for identifying my epimediums))...tags long since lost. Am sorry I didn't know about the nursery outside Truro as I returned from PEI yesterday. Next time!! Thanks for that also.

  12. I planted my first two Epimediums this past fall and am already in love with them. The flowers are so sweet and the foliage really is the brightest green. It's doing really well in my tough dry shade area. I can see how people start collecting these.

  13. Oh! Those flowers caught my attention. It seems you have a great flower gardens. How I wish I could have a cool garden like yours. Keep it up!


  14. Epimediums are wonderful! I have only one varietiy in my SW Missouri garden, epimedium x rubrum, a 60 yr old clump that I have taken bits off of to transplant in other spots. It's still thriving after all those years! I hope to add more varieties in the near future as I find them.

  15. Wonderful post about one of my very favorite plants! I love the flowers from the beginning, when they show nearly in bloom along the earth before lifting up. I have never seen the orange! Everything about Epimediums is delicate and magical... much to be excited about. Beautiful photos Jodi!

  16. I can see why you love them, Jodi. Epimedium is one plant I should again consider.

  17. Jodi dear,

    Yes, they are magical and I love them too.

    Nursery hopping is my favorite way to spend an afternoon, oh, and bookstore hopping.

    Sending love,

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

  18. Orange Queen bloomed for me for the first time this spring. I loved, loved, loved it!. It's great to know the foliage will keep going all summer. I might have to try some different epimediums..so many to choose from.

  19. The bones and foliage are what make up a cake. Flowers are the frosting.
    Most gardens aren't the success they could be because the gardener tries to put the frosting on a cake that isn't there.
    Botann@aol.com Near Seattle


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