Plants - Perennials

Epimedium: Made for shade

Few plants shine in the shade, but among those that do, Epimedium steals the spotlight

Barrenwort species
Barrenwort species are either clump forming or carpet forming, both ideal growth patterns for groundcover. Clumping varieties expand their girth and extend their leaves over the soil, while carpeting species slowly spread from shallow black rhizomes. The leaves rise from the soil in April and May, and are often flushed or rimmed in vivid colours of copper or red. Loose clusters of orchid-like flowers ascend with the leaves (or sometimes slightly in advance), and carry their dancing blossoms for three to four weeks. Even when no longer in bloom, the tidy clumps with shield-shaped leaves are pleasing all summer, and some take on flushes of scarlet in late autumn. Barrenworts are evergreen in mild regions above Zone 6, but winter winds in colder climates desiccate the foliage (which you should remove entirely before the handsome new leaves appear in spring).

Dividing plants
Barrenworts are such workhorses in my own garden that I always want more. Each autumn I split clumps or separate the carpet-forming rhizomes and set them where I need to fill space. (They can also be divided in spring after the blossoms are finished.) Clump-formers such as red barrenwort (E. x rubrum) can be used to fill one small space or be planted in colonies to follow a path or edge a bed. Red barrenwort also performs well in dry shade, alongside a garage or on a slope. E. grandiflorum ‘Rose Queen' is another drought-tolerant plant with large, long-spurred, rose-pink flowers and grows to a height of 30 centimetres. ‘Rose Queen' is a technicolour match for E. x perralchicum ‘Fröhnleiten', with its brown-flushed leaves and bright yellow flowers—particularly striking at the feet of white birch trees.

Attractive companions to other denizens of the shade bed—and interesting foils for the broad leaves of hostas and the spotted foliage of lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)—barrenworts require little special care, wanting only a loose, moist woodland soil, enriched with leaf mould, pine or spruce needles, and a once-a-year feeding with compost or rotted manure. Sufficient organic content in the soil is key to their success; barrenworts expand and spread only when satisfied with the meal at their feet. They're generally pest-free, tolerant of alkaline conditions and will accept some morning sun, but stronger sunlight causes stress. Flower production is decreased in dark shade, so it's best to site them in light to dappled shade. With few exceptions, such as E. x rubrum and E. pubigerum, most barrenworts won't adapt to chronically dry soil; more frequent irrigation is necessary when grown close to maple and other thirsty trees.

Barrenworts produce seed in a thin-walled capsule (although hybrids may not because some are sterile), and the low-flying bumblebees of May and June ably assist pollination. It's a rare form of entertainment to see a nectar-seeking bumblebee's cumbersome bulk embrace a tiny barrenwort flower as the whole raceme bobs wildly up and down. Once again spring and procreation go hand in hand, and the gardening season begins anew.


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