Posted by Aaron Barton on Mar 30th 2023

Epimedium (Barrenwort)

A standout shady perennial in both its utility and its beauty, Epimedium (ep-i-MEE-di-um), or barrenwort, of the barberry family, Berberidaceae (though unproblematic unlike its barberry relatives), is a phenomenal perennial for difficult dry shady areas of the landscape. Criminally underutilized, barrenwort is excellent for visual appeal and weed control when massed as a shady groundcover or pathway edger, perfect for planting on dry slopes for erosion control, and phenomenal for spring color and sustained animal and disease resistant foliage interest throughout the summer and fall. Epimedium is truly a must-plant perennial for shady borders and woodland gardens.  

Largely native to China, as well as other areas of eastern Asia and Mediterranean Europe, barrenwort thrives in part sun or even deeply shaded sites with evenly moist to dry soils and is exceptionally drought tolerant in shaded sites once established. Unbothered by water competition from large tree roots, Epimedium is perfect for dry areas near established trees and underplanting mature shrubs.

Early to emerge in the springtime, barrenwort form dense low mounds of around 12-24” tall and wide from underground rhizomes, their asymmetric heart-shaped, elongated leaves with prominent serrate margins serving as an invaluable asset in the shaded landscape. Forming slow-spreading mounds, often with mottled variegation or colorful margins, Epimedium offer lasting foliage interest throughout the entire growing season, useful for suppressing weeds, brightening up dark plantings, and providing outstanding contrast for later blooming perennials. Many species even persist with evergreen foliage throughout the winter (if they aren’t covered in feet of Minnesota snow).  

Blooming from mid-spring to early summer, Epimedium produce airy panicles of stunning orchid-like flowers ranging from ¼” to over 2” across atop delicate wiry stems, with excellent dynamic interest as they flutter in the cool spring breeze. Almost spider-like, barrenwort have complex four-part flowers, consisting of outer sepals that shed as blooms open, followed by four petal-like inner sepals backing four true petals with nectar-producing spurs that often extend beyond the sepals, all surrounding four central stamens. Popular varieties for Minnesotan gardens include ‘Rubrum,’ ‘Sulphureum,’ and ‘Rose Queen.’

Epimedium x rubrum, red barrenwort, is an exceptional hybrid of E. alpinum, alpine barrenwort, and E. grandiflorum, large-flowered barrenwort. Emerging in the spring as light green foliage tinged with red, leaves mature to light green with deep red margins, later taking on rich red fall color. Flowers are about an inch across with rosy red or deep pink sepals and short-spurred, ivory white or soft yellow petals against yellow stamens.

Epimedium x versicolor  ‘Sulphureum,’ bicolor barrenwort, is another excellent E. grandiflorum hybrid, produced as a cross of E. grandiflorum and E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum. Like red barrenwort, blushed foliage emerges in the spring and matures to light green before taking on excellent red fall color. Sprays of 1” diameter blooms have soft yellow sepals with short-spurred yellow petals.

Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Rose Queen’ is a stunning large-flowered barrenwort, with new foliage emerging a deep bronze purple color, maturing to dark green through the summer, and then again taking on deep bronze purple color through the fall. Blooms are an impressive 2.5” across with light pink sepals and dramatic long-spurred, bright pink petals.

Happy planting!