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Gardening 101: Barrenwort

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Gardening 101: Barrenwort

May 23, 2018

Barrenwort, Epimedium: “Bishop’s Hat”

“Now that’s a good plant,” knowledgeable gardeners will say, on seeing a shapely huddle of epimedium’s heart-shaped leaves in a well-planned woodland garden. They know that it is one of the best ground covers, staying put, tolerating dry shade, with handsome leaves that are briefly outshone by small but interesting flowers in spring. It’s not the first shade-tolerant plant that comes to mind, but it might as well be.

Shown above, Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ is a classic, with delicate-looking flowers on a very hardy plant. Read on to learn more about this versatile perennial, commonly known in the US as barrenwort.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, for Gardenista.

Epimedium &#8\2\16;Black Sea&#8\2\17;.
Above: Epimedium ‘Black Sea’.

Underneath the covering foliage, barrenwort seems to be constructed on wire. Wiry stems support each leaf, with flowers shooting off on long, wiry stems.

Epimedium &#8\2\16;Jenny Pym&#8\2\17;.
Above: Epimedium ‘Jenny Pym’.

Red-flowered varieties resemble ecclesiastical headgear, although epimedium’s nickname—bishop’s hat—refers to the miter-shaped leaves. In early spring, older leaves can be sheared to reveal the lower layer of flowers. New foliage will soon take over.

Epimedium x rubrum.
Above: Epimedium x rubrum.

A medieval-sounding (and less-used in the UK) common name for epimedium is barrenwort, as well as horny goat weed, and yes, they are connected. A quick trawl of these nicknames reveals that epimedium’s horticultural value is overshadowed by its medicinal worth as a libido-enhancer. It has been valued in China for thousands of years and is named after a “licentious” goat.

Epimedium x rubrum (shown) is one of the most popular varieties, with vibrant flowers and leaf color that develops over the seasons, from bronze to green to red.

Epimedium x perralchicum &#8\2\16;Frohnleiten&#8\2\17;, a natural partner for wood anemones, also shown.
Above: Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’, a natural partner for wood anemones, also shown.

Cheat Sheet

  • Slow-growing and long-lived, this mainly evergreen ground cover is distinguished by glorious leaves and subtle flowers.
  • Barrenwort’s veined, bronze-tinted foliage is worthy of pride of place in a smaller garden. Less vigorous forms of epimediums include E. x ‘Rubrum’ and E. x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’, shown here.
  • A retaining wall would be a good site for epimediums, so that the flowers, which rarely reach more than a foot high, can be better seen.
Columbine-like flowers of Epimedium grandiflorum.
Above: Columbine-like flowers of Epimedium grandiflorum.

Keep It Alive

  • Epimedium does best in cool, moist, well-drained soil. However, it is also drought-tolerant and can take full sun, depending on the variety.
  • Adding liberal doses of leaf mold or humus will help to keep barrenwort happy, retaining moisture and opening up soil structure.
  • In a similar way to hellebore management, cut off old leaves, not just to flatter the flowers but to show emerging new leaves at their best.
While Epimedium pubigerum is not evergreen, it does put up with a mix of shade and full sun.
Above: While Epimedium pubigerum is not evergreen, it does put up with a mix of shade and full sun.

For more growing tips and garden design ideas, see Barrenwort: A Field Guide and more of our favorite Ground Covers and Perennials in our curated Garden Design 101 guides. For more woodland natives, see:

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