E is for Epimedium (or Horny Goat Weed) :: A to Z of Gardens

Epimedium April 3

Bishop’s hat, barrenwort, fairy wings, rowdy lamb herb, randy beef grass, horny goat weed… These are all common names for epimedium. I can easily understand why epimedium might commonly be called fairy wings or bishop’s hat (or mitre) when you see the shape of the flowers. And bishop’s hat is an eminently suitable name, given that they tend to flower around Easter. But horny goat weed and randy beef grass?! I shudder to think how some of these names came into use.

Epimediums are one of my favourite spring plants. In early spring, bright tan stalks emerge from the soil, topped with a cluster of pale yellow, spurred flowers. A week or two later, heart-shaped green leaves with attractive bronze mottling begin to emerge, creating a foil for the scapes of flowers that seem to float delicately above. The leaves and flowers bob about in even the slightest breeze. It is such a pretty little plant, and it’s definitely worth getting low down to the ground to take a closer look at it.

It’s not just their unusual form and subtle colouring that make epimediums so special, it’s also the fact that they are tough plants that will happily grow in dry shade. If you’re looking for an attractive, perennial plant to grow in front of a north-facing wall, or in the shade of deciduous trees and shrubs, this may well be the plant for you. I think they’re an essential ingredient in a woodland planting scheme.

I’m not sure what variety of epimedium I’ve got in my garden as it was a freebie from my mum’s garden a few years ago. It’s worth knowing that European varieties tend to be tougher, more reliable and better suited to dry shade than Asian ones. You can get pale yellow, pink and white flowering varieties. Good ones to choose include:

Chelsea gold-winning garden designer, Dan Pearson, suggests growing yellow epimedium varieties with wood anemones and dog’s tooth violets (erythroniums). As far as I am concerned, Dan is never wrong about plant combinations. I will plant these bulbs in amongst the epimediums growing under my damson trees in autumn. In a herbaceous border, you could combine pink flowering epimediums, planted en masse, with pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’, tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’, and heuchera ‘Lime Marmalade’.

Caring for epimediums is straightforward. They like free-draining, humus-rich soil, in shade or semi-shade. Add some organic matter and/or bonemeal when planting. Like most perennials, they benefit from a mulch in spring. Remember that although epimediums are fairly drought-tolerant, they will need watering in dry weather until they are established.

I hope I’ve given you sufficient reason to go out and buy yourself some epimediums… or at least piqued your interest in horny goat weed…

Epimedium flowers

Epimedium leaf

Epimediums in border

Epimedium leaves Epimedium leaves 2

  2 comments for “E is for Epimedium (or Horny Goat Weed) :: A to Z of Gardens

  1. Mum
    April 21, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    Perhaps they fed it to said animals encourage breeding.

  2. Mum
    April 21, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    Perhaps they fed it to said animals encourage breeding.

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