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Upper South: Shady Arrangements

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BY C. COLSTON BURRELL / Free Union, Virginia, Zone 7

I am a lustful gardener. I once referred to myself as a chlorophyll addict, and an earnest voice asked who had bestowed my certification. Though I joked that she had obviously missed my swearing in at the White House, I am in fact self-certified. One of my merit badges was surely acquired by growing epimediums. This comely genus in the barberry family (Berberidaceae) is related to favorites such as mayapple (Podophyllum spp.) and twinleaf (Jeffersonia spp.), but epimediums have their own unique charms—and new species continue to be discovered. Of the 54 currently recognized species, at least 20 have been named in the last 10 years, and the mountainous regions of central China are still yielding new species (which are being promoted by enthusiasts like Darryl Probst; see “Epimedium Man,” January/February 2003).

Though I am always adding new epimediums to my collection of 300-plus clones, it is difficult for me to play favorites in a genus with dozens of flower shapes and sizes in a rainbow of colors. I love them all. I want them all. I'll get them all! In the area of my garden I call the torture chamber, stalwarts like E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum and its hybrid E. Xperralcium thrive in poor soil and dense shade with no supplemental watering. Graceful curved stalks sport outfacing yellow flowers arrayed like lily-of-the-valley. ‘Frohnleiten” and ‘Wisley’, two of my favorite selections, keep company with Helleborus odorus, wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa; below), and cyclamen.

Heading my list of favorites among the new introductions with yellow flowers is E. ecalcaratum, with nodding, floppy, bellshaped flowers slightly reminiscent of kirengeshoma. It weaves through a planting of maroon toad trilliums (T. cuncatum), which shares its April bloom period. Much showier in flower and foliage is E. franchetii, with large, spear-shaped leaflets and flowers with long, curved spurs like spiders. Epimedium lishihchenii and E. chlorandrum are variations on the theme. I use these as a mixed groundcover under stout clumps of yellow-flowered fairy bells (Disporum uniflorum) and ferns fronting a drift of yellow-leaved bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’).

More subtle and charming is the early-blooming E. pubescens, with airy sprays of tiny flowers like a swarm of white mosquitoes over mottled, evergreen leaves. The main show comes in March, but expect repeat bloom through June. On a gentle slope next to a well-traveled path, I have paired it with the bold foliage and waxy flowers of Trillium simile over a carpet of delicate Himalayan maidenhair (Adiantum venustum), and the effect is stunning. Epimedium stellulatum ‘Wudang Star” has flowers twice the size of E. pubescens and looks great with black-flowered hellebores and a carpet of white glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae ‘Alba’).

This spring, I'll be enjoying all of these combinations, and, with the help of Probst's epimedium specialty nursery, Garden Vision, fawning over 20 new prizes destined to become favorites.

To do in the garden

  • Remove all the old epimedium foliage before new growth starts to emerae. Nothing spoils the show like a tangle of brown leaves. Likewise, nothing is more frustrating than trying to trim out old leaves after the new ones emerge, Buds invariably get damaged or snipped off.
  • Mulch beds early to avoid burying emerging bulbs and perennials. Use a light leaf mulch or compost rather than heavy bark, which swamps the crowns of most perennials, robs the soil of nutrients, and can encourage fungal diseases.
  • Use containers of bulbs to enliven dull spots in the garden where late emerging perennials are planted.

Worth growing

European wood anemone Anemone nemorosa

Starry light blue to white flowers carpet the ground like snow in early spring. This denizen of open woods adapts beautifully to gardens in North America, Spidery shoots push from the cold ground, opening five oval sepals that close and droop in the cool of the evening, revealing a faint blue blush on the reverse, Plants grow two to four inches tall from creeping rhizomes that look like slender pretzels. Plant in rich. humusy, evenly moist soil in full sun to light shade. Crowded clumps flower poorly, so divide as plants go dormant USDA Zones 4–8.