Basic information about Epimediums. Includes Origin, Growing & Cultivation, Common Pests & Diseases, Interesting Facts & Uses, and Garden Design Tips.
The botanical name, Epimedium, is derived from ‘epimedion’ a Greek name for a different plant that has been lost to time.
There are many common names – Barrenwort is probably the most popular, derived from its ability to grow in places many plants cannot. Epimedium is also called Bishop’s hat or Fairy wings (both referring to the shape of the flowers) as well as sometimes used in herbal medicine under the name horny goat weed.
Epimediums are mostly native to Asia; China in particular, with some species in the Mediterranean region.
Growing and Cultivation
Epimedium prefer partial shade and rich, fertile, well-drained and neutral to acid soils. When established, this plant will tolerate dry shade beneath trees. Water weekly after planting, gradually tapering down frequency and amount of water. Most gardeners leave foliage on the plants through winter to help protect roots from frost and then cut them back in late winter (February) before the flower stems appear.
Common Pests and Diseases
Epimedium are quite resistant to pests and diseases. The only disease known to occasionally affect them is a mosaic virus (mosaic pattern of yellow or cream on leaves) that is frequently caused by infection spread by garden tools from other plants. There is no treatment or cure of virus, and the plant should be removed entirely and non-susceptible plants replanted into the spot.
Vine weevils can sometimes show up to feast on the plants’ leaves and roots. These are more serious; the grubs can cause enough damage to roots to wilt and kill plants! Adult beetles will eat foliage and can be picked off and drowned or sprayed with pesticides. The more problematic grubs will live in the soil and eat the roots; they may be treated with a predatory nematode or insecticidal drenches.
Epimedium is both deer and rabbit resistant – they prefer not to eat it.
Interesting Facts and Uses
Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’ received the UK Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
Epimedium has been used traditionally in Chinese herbal medicine to treat male sexual disfunction. Some of the compounds found in the plant have been shown to have a similar, though weaker, effect and pathway as the active ingredient in Viagra.
Studies have also shown compounds within the plant have a stimulant effect on osteoblast activity in bone tissue, leading to the current researching of Epimedium for use in treating osteoporosis and bone loss.
Epimedium foliage goes through seasonal color changes, emerging in the spring with young shoots tinted pink or bronze and eventually shading to green. In the fall this reverses, with leaves becoming edged in bronze or red and the color moving inward to the center.
The flowers are also attractive to bees, making them a good addition to a pollinator-friendly garden.
Garden Design Tips
While not a lead role, Epimediums are great supporting actors! In mixed borders or woodlands they complement a wide variety of other shade plants, including helleborus, snowdrops, pulmonaria, aquilegia, heuchera, ferns, Tricyrtis (toad lily), tiarella, dicentra/lamprocapnos, and especially woodland natives like trilliums, Solomon’s seal, and anemones.
To purchase Epimedium varieties, please visit our Shade Companion Plants Page.