Celebrate the Spring Foliage Fashion Show

Red barrenwort - also known as Bishop's hat in the UK

Red barrenwort (Epimedium x rubrum) also known as Bishop’s hat in the UK

I can’t help it – my heart skips a beat when I walk into a nursery at this time of year. I find myself reaching out to touch herbs, smell viburnums…and swoon at the sight of barrenwort  (Epimedium). It’s a sad affliction really but there is something about these wonderfully old fashioned perennials that makes me smile. Memories of my gardens in England perhaps or the relief that after winter we can once again enjoy the simple pleasures of reliable, colorful old friends that just get bigger and better every year.

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Frohnleiten barrenwort (Epimedium × perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’); marbled foliage and sulfur yellow flowers

So what’s so special about barrenwort?

  • The new heart shaped foliage is outstanding, usually at least tinged with red but often intensely colored
  • Dainty flowers dance high above the leaves in early spring
  • Many are evergreen
  • Drought tolerant
  • Deer resistant
  • Rabbit resistant
  • Spreads slowly to form a groundcover
  • Smaller plants work well in containers
  • Tolerates dry shade

Combination ideas

IMG_3324Dainty orange and yellow spidery flowers of Amber Queen barrenwort (Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’) dance above the golden Tom Thumb spruce (Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb’). The semi-evergreen elongated leaves of the barrenwort promise an exciting display very soon as burgundy mottling is already developing.

IMG_3333For additional color blend blue hostas and black mondo grass into this scene.

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Create a carpet under deciduous trees. Frohnleiten barrenwort is seen above with smoky purple hellebores adding depth and a large mugo pine offering year round structure.

IMG_3338For a seasonal garden moment you can’t do much better than capturing the brief relationship between the purple foliage of Gerald Derby iris and lavender flowers of Lilafee barrenwort (Epimedium x grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’). Each plant is more striking for its relationship with the other but this distinctive color is only for a very brief time. Be ready to party!

Cultural info

Barrenwort are generally hardy in zones 5-8 and prefer partial shade or full shade in average-dry soil.

Divide in autumn or after blooming

Design credit throughout; Mitch Evans, Redmond WA

 

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