May 4, 2011


Way back in time, about three years ago, I planted barrenwort to cover the ground under a dogwood tree.  Barrenwort is supposed to like dry shade, so it makes a great massing plant under trees.

I set out a dozen Epimedium perralchicum 'Frohnleiten' plants.  Frohnleiten means fairywings in German, referring to the delicate wands of flowers.

How utterly delightful.  I was captivated by the name, the promise of fairy flowers, the advertised red tinged leaves, and the rarity of a plant that can thrive under trees.

I planted.  I waited.  Nothing.

They did not perish, but they did nothing for three years.  They never bloomed, the leaves were tiny and unimpressive and they simply did not go anywhere.  No massing, no ground covering spread.  In winter they disappeared underground entirely, and in spring they barely emerged, timid and tired looking.  Hmmpph, I said, fugheddaboutit.  And I did.  I forgot all about them.  What a disappointment.  Pffft.

This spring as I walked past the dogwood, I was stopped in my tracks.  What was this?

The epimediums (epimedia?) had not only exploded in bloom, but had massed and were starting to spread out around the trunk of the dogwood.  And there were real fairywings of bright yellow flowers wafting around above the fantastic foliage.

The foliage!  The rusty red edged leaves are stunning.  They look as if fairies stenciled them in curly heart shaped patterns.  Where was this plant for three years?

It turns out epimediums are very slow to establish, but once they do, they really bulk up.

Two years ago I put some more in around the trunk of a large maple.  This time I planted Epimedium alpinum 'Rubrum', a common variety that has pink and white flowers and light green leaves with red overtones.  Like my fairywings, this variety is also disappointing right now, just two seasons after planting.  It's still in the fuhgeddaboutit stage.

But unlike 'Frohnleiten' the 'Rubrum' barrenwort is actually blooming already; sparse and thin looking, but blooming.

This time I won't forget about them.  I know I must wait another year or two or three.  The 'Rubrum' plants will mass and fill in under the maple tree, all in their own good time.

I had given up on this perennial.  I really had --- I thought it was a big nothing and couldn't understand why people even planted them, except the options for dry shade are so limited.  But give this plant four seasons at least.  It will make you take notice. 

(I'm delighted with the rust red leaves and sulphur yellow flowers of Frohnleiten . . . . BUT . . . they are sitting beneath a pink flowering dogwood.  When the pink blooms come out in a week, will they look horrid with the maroon and yellow thing going on below?  Will the shoes clash with the outfit?)


  1. What a nice alternative to the regular ground covers out there. Foliage is what sells me, every time, and this looks great. I've never heard of it but will go looking for it. :-)

  2. Laurie, rewards to those that wait...Lucky you did not dig them out. Also, the pear and PJM's...yuck.

  3. We have the same epimediums!! Mine are about to take over a bed, so I'm glad I waited, too!!! They look beautiful around your tree. I love the flowers. They look like tiny UFO's. :o)

  4. I think the shoes will look just perfect with the outfit. Just look at those yellow blooms with the red-tinged leaves. It will look so spring-like. I planted the yellow Epi that was marked to be the Rubrum. Imagine my surprise when it finally bloomed yellow. I love it anyway. I will try for a rubrum again sometime.

  5. Hi Laurrie, I have one epimedium (white flowers I think) and wish I had more. (I am having trouble finding an assortment of varieties here.) I really like your yellow one with its brownish leaves. As to the shoes clashing with the outfit, I suggest you might accessorize by adding a white flower of some kind into the mix. White always seems to mellow out the clash of yellow and pink.

  6. Wendy, you should definitely check out epimediums. They are in garden centers everywhere. But be prepared to BE PATIENT!

    Donna, I am so glad I waited to see these emerge as a real groundcover. I am glad I didn't dig them up!

    TS, I never though of tiny UFOs, but you are so right!!

    Lisa, I can't believe how many people have said they got mismarked cultivars... that has never happened to me. How distressing!

    Jennifer, great suggestion to add white to the clash of maroon + yellow shoes and pink dress. I think that could work. . . I'll have to think about that.

  7. I am experiencing the same with my epimediums. Last year blah, this year better, can't wait till next year! Your yellow ones under the dogwood are a dream!

  8. It's the old cliche about perennials - the first year they sleep, second year creep, third year leap! Beautiful photos :)

  9. The epimediums are stunning- I have never seen those - great description "stenciled in curly heart patterns" exactly what it looks like. Beautiful.

  10. Deborah, thanks. I hope you get some spectacular shows from your epimediums next year.

    Cyndy, these didn't just sleep and then creep. They went comatose, stayed comatose, and then exploded!
    : )

    Kacky, they really do look like they have stencilled hearts on their leaves, don't they!

  11. I guess epimediums must follow that old adage of sleep, creep, leap. I must try these in my garden. They are beautiful.

  12. Sweetbay, thanks, I am so glad this plant finally woke up!

  13. Beautiful beautiful plants. So glad you didn't give up on them but as many have said it can take several years for many perennials to establish themselves. Hopefully they won't look too funny with your pink dogwood.

  14. Marguerite, thanks. Patience with plants is a virtue!


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