Epimediums: A Bishop’s Hat or Fairy’s Wings

Among the most beautiful and charming perennials in the Woodland Garden is the epimedium, commonly known as Bishop’s Hat or Fairy Wings. The dainty early spring bloom and lovely, yet unobtrusive foliage are assets in any shady garden. And as if that wasn’t enough, they are easy to grow, easy to maintain and deer and rabbit resistant.  

The natural distribution of Epimedium falls into two broad areas – the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and Eastern Asia. Most of the epimediums that have been available for years is derived from Mediterranean species. The winter rain and summer drought from which these evolved makes them great plants for the Pacific Northwest. These species and their hybrids generally show excellent drought tolerance and a carefree nature. New epimediums, introduced from Asia, have brought colorful new foliage and interestingly shaped leaves into the picture. These Asian species do not share the same drought tolerance and ironclad constitution of their Mediterranean counterparts. 

All epimediums thrive in dappled or open shade and prefer moist, well-draining soil. In our area they can tolerate a half-day of sun without damage to the foliage. Some varieties are recommended as plants for dry shade, and while their tough foliage and stout rhizomes can allow them to grow in such conditions, they may not give their best. 

Given proper conditions these delicate charmers will form a beautiful groundcover, often with magnificent new leaves tinted in bronze, copper and reds combining with a huge variety of flower colors and forms in the spring. Handsome and dense-growing foliage remains present for much of the year, with the leaves often turning purple or crimson in the fall, while others remain evergreen. With all varieties, the foliage is best cut off at ground level shortly before new leaves emerge to that the flowers are not hidden amongst the foliage.