The epimedium – understated elegance for all seasons

One of the hallmarks of my plant choosing habits is an attraction to anything that has what I consider to be an ‘old fashioned’ look about it. I shy away from sappy, gaudy overly hybridized and commercially tampered with plants of all kinds. By contrast I am drawn to things that look like they have always been there, plants with a quiet appeal, an element of toughness, and in particular those which will give interest over the longue durée.

About 10 years ago whilst browsing in the plant section of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, I came across something that met my criteria exactly. Glossy, spear-shaped leaves on thin, wiry stems, with what looked like a spreading habit and just a hint that rich green might turn a warmer colour come the autumn. As I waited to pay, my friend and I looked at the label and immediately lapsed into schoolboy humour. The lovely horticultural specimen I was just about to buy was called an epimedium, something we found inexplicably funny, and still recall with some affection to this day.

More important though, was the ‘discovery’ of a new plant, which would come to be much enjoyed and in time have a more prominent place in the Dumfriesshire garden.

If its Latin descriptor gives opportunities for punning, its other ‘common’ names are even more curious: ‘barrenwort’, ‘bishop’s hat’, ‘fairy wings’, ‘long spur’, and not least the extremely improbable ‘horny goat weed’,  being just some examples. I won’t dwell on the explanations and etymologies.

I brought my one plant home, already wishing I had purchased three or even five, and placed it on the edge of a border in an area of particularly thin soil. I’d read that this was a species that could thrive in a measure of shade and was drought tolerant. Over the years, as I have bought or been given more, I have stuck to this formula, planting in poor-ish soil and where sun and moisture are in limited supply. More recently, I’ll admit to spreading into richer terrain in the ‘damp border’ where a rill runs into the pond and reasonable light is available.

Both positionings seems to have worked. Slow to settle in, albeit with no losses to date, the epimediums gradually bulk up, smother any weeds and over time emerge as handsome features at the front of the border.

This year they seem to have been exceptional, an interpretation readily confirmed by my expert horticultural neighbour. For now the new leaves are pushing through, a delicate soft bronze at first that turns bright, shining green as the weeks go by. Topping them off are flowers of yellow, blue, purple and lilac with shapes that find an echo in their common names – hat-like, wing-like, horn-like, spur-like. Before opening out they hang from delicate claret or golden coloured  stems, in tiny buds like raindrops.

So what of cultivation methods?   In my early epimedium days, by March the plants would look scruffy after the ravages of Winter. I took advice and decided to give them an uncompromising haircut, right back to ground level. Within a week or two the flower stems would emerge, followed by the foliage. I liked the delicate effect. Then one nurseryperson told me that this could weaken some plants and cautioned against the practice. In a fit of enlightened self-interest, I took the advice and this year left the plants to themselves, thereby avoiding one task in the busy Spring period.

The result has been billowing clouds of new growth on top of the existing – seemingly more flowers than before and more fresh leaf growth.  I am content, and will resort only to a bit of tidying up when the flowers are finished.

So ‘barrenwort’ is in vogue in the Dumfriesshire garden. My original Chatsworth purchase is now nearly a metre wide. I look for any opportunity to acquire more examples at plant sales and in nurseries. There are over 60 accepted species and multiple hybrids. Originating in China, Japan and Korea, they have found a welcoming home in the Scottish garden context. They are tough, resilient, elegant and understated. For a balance between foliage and flower, they are indeed the perfect happy medium!

First published in Garden Musings 22 April 2022

Update 18 April 2023

It has been a hard winter with a cruel combination of deep frosts (see Garden Musing December 16th) followed by destructive flooding. Like many other plants, the epimediums have suffered. But at least they are still alive. These pictures, taken this morning, tell a very different story to last year. My strategy has been to leave them be for the time being, giving a chance for recovery, and if successful a bit of gentle tidying up will follow.

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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