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!


  1. They are wonderful, aren't they? I only have three varieties, but I'm so glad I added them a few years ago. I'm surprised at how they all perform so differently. One is struggling to survive in my garden, another is playing nice, and the third variety is slightly invasive, although I have it in a controlled area. I love the foliage and the blooms!

    1. I was astonished by just how many different kinds there are. Of course with all other plants, you get some that have to be babied and others that just like to run rampant!

  2. I love Epimediums! I'm glad to learn about this nursery so close to us. I'll have to remember to visit it next May.

    1. A great nursery to visit since you are in the area! I think you can go online and get on their mailing list, which will give you a heads up when they are open next year.

  3. I'd have succumbed too, I love them.

    1. It was definitely hard to pick which ones to take home with me!

  4. I so enjoyed this post on epimediums. I am in love with the genus. So easy to grow in so many places. Last week, even in Oklahoma, I had a few blooms left on one plant. They are such wonderful specimens. I wonder if your nursery has mail order? Surely, I can find a place or two more for them.~~Dee

    1. It is primarily a mail order nursery, so you can definitely order online from them. Enjoy!

  5. I thought you were joking when you called it horny goat weed. Just goes to show. An intriguing genus of plants. I have a couple patches, mostly inherited from the last owners.

    1. It does indeed contain a compound that works similarly to Viagra! It is over-harvested in a lot of areas in Asia for medicinal use, so there is a big push now to identify the various species and preserve them.

  6. They all look irresistible. I can image picking a few was hard.


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