The striking flowers of epimedium, poised on spindly stems like a crowd of colourful spiders, always look enticing in photographs – although they’re a little more petite in the flesh than you might imagine. The leaves can be colourful, too, in spring and again in autumn. They’re good ground-covering plants for shady parts of the garden, with different ones suitable for moist or dry shade
PLANT TYPE Hardy perennial
POSITION Shade or partial shade
SOIL Well-drained or moist depending on the variety
Height x spread: 45 x 40cm
This variety really stood out from the crowd in our trial, with a long-lasting and impressive display of large flowers on masses of long stems. The glossy, heart-shaped leaves are evergreen and looked neat throughout winter, although they stayed green and didn’t redden. The new leaves did have some speckled red colouring. But it was the flowers, untouched by frost and held high above the leaves for many weeks, that really drew attention. It's best for moist soil in partial shade. Peak flowering: April-June.
Height x spread: 30 x 30cm
This variety is recommended as a variety that reflowers, and we had flowers in July and August at both our trial sites during the first year, and in north London in the second year. The medium-sized (3cm) blooms faced outwards more than some, so the delicate details could be seen. The new leaves, which were still appearing in late May, were a pretty shade of deep red, too. This is an evergreen variety that looked neat during the winter, although some of the leaves turned brown in snow in Glasgow. It's best for moist soil in shade. Peak flowering: April-May.
Height x spread: 30 x 50cm
Having started flowering in March, the buds were nipped by frost in Glasgow and the full glory of the promised display was cut short. We’ve still made this variety a Best Buy, though, partly because of the long display in north London and partly because they still flowered well enough to be a favourite in Glasgow. Neat clumps of bronzed leaves looked handsome over winter, too. Best for dry shade. Peak flowering: March-May.
Height x spread: 50 x 100cm
The flower stems of this new variety weren’t particularly long, but they did lift the blooms above the leaves and spread in all directions, so the medium-sized (3cm) creamy flowers were shown off nicely. The plants are evergreen, but weren’t very good looking in the depths of winter, especially in Glasgow. The old leaves had a very leathery look, but the new ones were in bright tones of orange and red. Best for moist soil in shade. Peak flowering: May-June.
Height x spread: 30 x 35cm
We were impressed by plants that seemed to combine strong growth with ice-cream coloured flowers in spring and coloured leaves for much of the year; red on the new leaves in spring and bronze colours in autumn. In north London, there were at least a few flowers out all the time between April and June. It stayed evergreen, too, even during the worst of the winter in Glasgow. Best for moist soil in partial shade. Peak flowering: April-May.
Height x spread: 25 x 30cm
The delicate heart-shaped leaves with spiny edges are a stunning feature on this variety. In spring, the new growth was bright red laid over lime green and the leaves kept that colour for several months. Towards winter they took on bronze tints, although after snow in Glasgow they started to look a bit scruffy. The flowers, less spidery shaped than other varieties, were tiny, untroubled by frost and held well above the leaves. Best for dry shade. Peak flowering: March-April.
In spring, we planted 27 varieties of epimedium at the trial garden in north London, where the soil is well drained and the weather tends to be relatively dry and mild; and at Greenbank Garden in Glasgow, where the heavy clay soil and colder, wetter conditions give plants some very different problems to contend with. They were planted in the light shade of nearby trees on both sites and we made sure they were well watered while settling in.
We assessed the plants weekly from spring to autumn in both years and monthly in winter, looking at when they flowered and for how long, whether they reflowered in summer, whether they were evergreen and, if so, how attractive they looked over winter. We also looked at the leaf colour in spring.
Plant in light shade in dry or moist soil according to the requirements of the variety chosen. Add organic matter (leaf mould is best) when planting, and water all varieties well if it’s dry until they’re established. Different varieties prefer different soil acidity and alkalinity, but soil that is just on the acid side of neutral (pH of 6.2 to 6.5) is recommended as suitable to grow the widest range of species.
With deciduous varieties, you should remove the old leaves in late winter before the buds appear, so you’ll get a better view of the flowers and new coloured foliage. Don’t remove the leaves of the evergreen varieties in spring as they can take a long time to regrow.
Deadheading won't prolong flowering as flowers are formed in the previous season. But it’s worth doing to tidy your plants once flowering has finished.
Frosty weather at flowering time can kill the flower buds and ruin the display. Varieties that hide their flowers among old foliage can be less prone to frost damage than those with taller stems. So, unfortunately, the varieties with the most visible flowers are the ones more likely to get damaged by frost.
Planting them under a canopy of trees or among other plants can help to protect them. It may also be worth tucking horticultural fleece around them if you see late frosts forecast.