The Rodney Dangerfield of plants, Epimedium, commonly called barrenwort or bishop’s hat, doesn’t get the respect it deserves. This underused plant is a superhero in the shady garden, providing colour and texture where few plants dare to go. Eight of the 17 expert gardeners interviewed in Gardening from a Hammock selected various forms of barrenwort for the shade garden. Although this perennial looks delicate, it is “tough as nails” says one.
It is a dependable, no-nonsense groundcover says garden lecturer Frank Kershaw. “It takes sun in the rockery and shade in the woodland and keeps its leaves into winter.” He adds that it is tough and flexible enough to flourish in dry shade. Depending on the variety, white, pink or yellow flowers appear from May to June while the heart-shaped leaves emerge bright green with a slight tinge of pink or red and later run a deeper green; by autumn they take on yellow, bronze or red tones.
Epimedium comes in three colours: red (rubrum), yellow (sulphureum) and white (niveum). Aldona Satterthwaite, executive director of Toronto Botanical Garden, teams the yellow Epimedium with ghost fern, Bowles golden sedge and golden Japanese forest grass for a spectacular combination of colour, texture and interest in the shady garden.
Barrenwort is a lazy gardener’s treasure because it will grow under just about anything, including maple trees. Dugald Cameron, of gardenimport.com, recommends the variety ‘Frohnleiten’ because while the regular species has blossoms that hide under its leaves, this one holds its butter-yellow blossoms above the heart-shaped leaves. The glossy leaves are a bonus as they turn deep red in autumn.
Chalk Lake Nursery owner and teacher Martin Galloway adds that the old foliage of barrenwort crumples and covers the ground in winter through spring, at which time the new leaves rise above the old in company with the flowers. “It is slow growing but consistent, will live forever and is drought tolerant and tough,” he says.
All varieties of barrenwort are hardy, bloom in the shade and are an excellent groundcover or edging. They can brighten up a woodland garden in full or part-shade. Typically barrenwort grows 20-25 cm high with a 15-30 cm spread in zones 4-9.
Sedum spurium ‘John Creech’ is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.