Wednesday, June 5, 2019

A Month of Epimediums

We had a cool, rainy spring here in New England.  Finally in May temperatures started to slowly rise, and everything turned green.

This year I declared May 'the month of Epimediums'.  Epimedium (aka fairy wings, barrenwort, bishop's hat, or horny goat weed, as you might call it) started blooming in my garden at the beginning of May.  They bloomed throughout the month, with the latest one finally dropping its flowers on the last day of the month.

Epimedium × warleyense
Epimediums are common in Japan and China, but they were largely unknown to western gardens until a few decades ago.  It is thanks to a few dedicated lovers of this genus that they are now much more widely known and mentioned here when gardeners talk about plants for that dreaded 'dry shade'. 

white-flowering epimedium
One such epimedium enthusiast is the hybridizer Darrell Probst of Massachusetts.  He hunted and collected seedlings on expeditions in Asia along with his interpreter, Joanna Zhang, and networked with other enthusiasts such as the late Harold Epstein.

Epimedium × rubrum
In 1997 Darrell Probst and Karen Perkins opened Garden Visions Epimediums, a small retail mail-order nursery in central Massachusetts dedicated to these plants.  Darrell has largely moved on to hybridizing coreopsis (anyone else have a Big Bang series coreopsis in their garden?), but Karen still owns and operates the epimedium nursery.

Garden Visions
Garden Visions is open for just a couple weeks a year in May to visit and shop in person.  May is always a busy time of year, and I have been trying to find time to drive out there every year since I moved up here.  This year I finally succeeded.

It is a small nursery, but it contained an astonishing number of varieties of epimediums.

Clockwise from top left: E. lishihchenii, E. wushanense, E. sempervirens 'Cherry Hearts', E. × 'Pink Champagne',  E. grandiflorum var. violaceum 'Bronze Maiden'
I visited on a chilly, rainy day during the first week in May.  There wasn't much in bloom yet when I went, but many epimediums are also known for their stunning foliage, especially as they first emerge.

Clockwise from left: E. 'Mottled Madness', E. × versicolor 'Cupreum', E. sempervirens 'Variegated #1'
I loved seeing the growing beds behind the plants for sale.  New epimediums in the making!

Garden Visions also sells a few unusual companion plants, such as bloodroot, one of my favorite spring ephemerals.

growing beds of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Most people know of epimediums as groundcover plants for dry shade, but the genus is diverse. Some are clumping, some are spreading.  Some are evergreen, some deciduous.  And while some of the spreading types do tolerate dry soil, they usually prefer moisture.  Most of the epimediums in my garden are pass-a-longs from a generous friend who has a moist, shady garden where they spread happily.

Epimediums are hardy from zone 5 to zones 7, though there are varieties that can be grown in colder or warmer zones.  They bloom in spring and are best divided in fall.   They are widely known in Asia as a medicinal plant - thus the nickname 'horny goat weed'.  (Legend has it that a Chinese goat herder noticed his flock grazing on a patch of epimedium and then were afterwards much more 'active'.) Thankfully, while goats might eat this plant, the deer and bunnies won't.  

Epimedium 'Pink Champagne'
It was amazing to see so many different epimediums in one place at Garden Visions.  Of course, the hardest part was figuring out which ones to take home with me...

Happy gardening!

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