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or just about any other place where concrete consumes

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Plant Profiles

Warley Barrenwort



Epimediums are in bloom already.  Is it because the Winter has been so mild?  These tough perennials make a garden visit worthwhile even when the weather is just barely above freezing.  The flowers of Warley barrenwort are yellow and terracotta.  They would recoil at the pink bloom of magnolias, which are also out, but are easy harmonizers with all of early Spring's many yellows, from the blatant yellow of forsythia to the muted shades of narcissus, Cornelian cherry, hellebores, and corylopsis.




These delicate flowers also give you the opportunity to mention epimedium's lusty common name:  Horny Goat Weed.  Many epimediums have aphrodisiac potential, supposedly proven by a Chinese farmer's goats soon after they'd munched some.  That the shape of some epimedium flowers is reminiscent of ecclesiastic head-dress leads to yet another common name, Bishop's Hat. 



Here's how to grow this stylish and enduring Spring beauty:

Latin name

Epimedium x warleyense

Common name

Bishop's Hat, Fairy Wings, Horny Goat Weed, Barrenwort


Berberidaceae, the Barberry family.

What kind of plant is it?

Rhizomatous perennial.


Zones 4 - 8.


Low and spreading, with leaves and flower stems arising directly from the shallow rhizomes.

Rate of growth


Size in ten years

A colony of two feet across and eight inches high.


Dense but not heavy.

Grown for:

its durable foliage, which in Zone 7 and warmer can be evergreen.  In colder climates it is still very persistent, remaining in good shape until weather is consistently freezing.  The foliage is mid-green and pointed; it's thick enough to function as a groundcover, but is effective more than showy.

the early Spring flowers, in perky sprays that preceed the foliage.  They are in shades of yellow and terracotta.  The rounded back "petals" are actually sepals, part of the flower's protective bud cover.  There's an outer set of sepals, as well, but those are quickly shed as the flower opens.  This inner set lasts as long as the flower itself, and are flushed and mottled in yellow and terracotta.  They are a light-colored contrast to the dark-tipped and pointed quartet of petals that are arrayed precisely over each sepal's center.  The central pistil and stamens are bright yellow, for another point (literally) of contrast.  The flowers are held singly on a bright green branching stem.  


its endurance.  As is typical for epimediums, colonies of E. x warleyense will thrive for years even in modestly congenial habitats.


its hardiness.  As is typical for epimediums, E. x warleyense is as succesful in climates with serious and prolonged Winter as it is in climates where Winter is merely cold and rainy.  Although many epimedium species and cultivars are so new to Western horticulture that their specific hardiness has yet to be confirmed, indications so far are that all epimediums are hardy into the "real" Winters of Zone 6 and 5.  To date, no epimediums have been identified with hardiness only to Zone 7 or warmer.


being deer-proof.  As is typical for epimediums, E. x warleyense foliage and flowers are still repellent to browsers even though they lack unpalatable fuzz or thorns.


its shade-tolerance.  As is typical for epimediums, E. x warleyense will grow in full sun if it has good soil and water, but its comfort with shade makes it much more useful where sun is patchy or fleeting. 

Flowering season

Early Spring: March into April here in Rhode Island.

Color combinations

Because the green foliage is neutral, and there's no Fall foliage color, the Spring flowers are your opportunity for perceptive collaborations.  There's enough yellow in the flowers for warley epimediums to stand up to even the strong Spring yellows of forsythia and daffodils, which are out at the same time.  The terra cotta hues allow this epimedium to combine with orange.  There's no starting point for discussion with plants that bring pink, blue, burgundy, or white to the party.

Partner plants

Epimedium x warleyense comes into bloom when the weather is still cool enough for the twigs of Tilia cordata 'Winter Orange' to retain their brilliant cold-weather coloring of copper orange and pink.  I'm going to include the epimedium in its underplantings.  Early Spring flowers of corylopsis—a soft yellow-green—would be effective, too; corylopsis bushes are usually large and haystacky, and epimediums could groundcover the outer reaches of their canopy. 


Epimedium can also be the groundcover through which taller and more deeply-rooted plants erupt.  Spring bulbs could be especially appropriate, in that their bulbs would be planted more deeply than the roots of the epimedium's shallow rhizomes could reach.  Species tulips and their cultivars perennialize better than the big hybrids, and many of them bloom in congenial colors as well as early enough in the Spring season to coincide with the epimedium's flowering.  Look for Tulipa batalinii, T. clusiana, T. dasystemon, and T. turkestanica; there are many others.  Take care, though, that still taller growth provides some afternoon shade by Summer, when the Spring bulbs are dormant, and the epimediums will need some protection.  Could the epimedium/tulip patch be planted to the east of taller perennials and ornamental grasses that don't reach their peak, in height as well as flowering, until August?  Dormant tulips appreciate very good drainage, which would suit only those epimediums that were not also drought-stressed by too much hot afternoon sun.


Similarly, epimediums are particularly good choices for groundcover near shrubs with vertical stems and a tendency towards bare ankles, such as Calycanthus, Kerria, Nandina, and Lindera.  The shrubs provide the high and dappled shade that the epimediums love, and the epimediums provide the ground-level fullness and interest that the shrubs need.  

Where to use it in your garden

Although epimediums are functionally effective mostly as groundcovers, the flowers are so intriguing and detailed that colonies should always be located near or at the front of beds.  They are, truly, worth kneeling for.  Plus, Epimedium foliage often endures through the Winter.  It's best to clip it away before the flower stalks start to show, and that, inevitably, means you'll be clipping when the bed is still far too sloppy to step into.


Part shade in any decent soil with good drainage.  Epimediums are tolerant of tree roots—although nothing can really go to town amid the shallow and dense roots of maples.  Soil that's nutrient-rich produces the thickest growth, and, hence, colonies that are most effective groundcovers.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant in Spring or just past the peak of Summer—late August, say—so plants have time to establish before Winter.  Provide enough water for successful establishment the first season; epimediums growing in decent soil and with no more than dappled sunlight are impressively drought-tolerant.


Even if the foliage remains evergreen through the Winter, it's better to cut it down to the ground before new foliage or flower stalks emerge in the Spring.  The flower stalks emerge a bit before the foliage, so if you see any buds, there's not a moment to waste before the task becomes forbiddingly fiddly as you extract individual stems of last year's growth from the fragile emergers of Spring.  If the weather is calm enough for you to be outside smelling the mid-to-late Winter flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia, H. japonica, and H. mollis, it's time to combine that pleasure with grooming your epimediums.  

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

Epimediums are easy to divide, because clumps of the shallow rhizomes can be dug up easily, and pulled apart readily.  Because their Spring flowering can be so early, it's often best to divide epimediums in August or September.  But if the Winter has been mild and the soil isn't too muddy for digging (let alone kneeling), dividing in late Winter is also possible.  You may still get Spring flowering.

Quirks and special cases





Few plant genera are expanding so quickly.  Additional species from China enter the Western market regularly, as well as new hybrids involving them as well as currently-available species and cultivars.  There are currently about sixty species in cultivation.  Because so many epimediums are native to Japan and China, where gardening has been intensively practiced for centuries, there are many Asian hybrids and cultivars that are still to become more widely available in the West.  


Although all epimediums are clumping rhizomatous perennials with leaves and small starry flowers on narrow stems, the variety within that format is startling.  Foliage can be round or narrow, smooth-edged or jagged and nearly prickly, always green or ephemerally purple, evergreen (depending on the mildness of the climate) or deciduous, and—perhaps most important—small or (for an epimedium) huge.  Some cultivars spread much more quickly than others; density of foliage is also variable. 


Without question, the showiest diversity is in the flowers.  Their colors range from white to pink to yellow to orange, and because the coloring of the petals can be completely different from that of the sepals, the number of combinations is even larger.  Further, the petals or the sepals can be dramatically narrowed and elongated into spurs, adding yet another "diversity metric" to the mix.  With yet more variance in the size of the flowers, the height of the stalk on which they're displayed, and the number of flowers per stalk, the potential range of epimedium cultivars and hybrids is in the thousands.


One of the largest collections of epimediums is in the woodland gardens of Chanticleer, a 47-acre estate near Philadelphia that's now open to the public.  Its spectrum of delights is unparalleled in North America.


My epimedium wishlist includes  'Amber Queen', with tall and large clusters of small yellow flowers; 'Ellen Willmott', whose yellow and orange flowers have more intense coloring than those of E. x warleyense itself; and 'Yokihi', with flowers in pink and yellow. 


On-line and at retailers.


By division in late August.

Native habitat

Epimedium x warleyense is a hybrid of E. alpinum, native of southern Europe, and E. pinnatum colchicum, native of Iran and the Caucasus.

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