Epimedium-Fairy Wings Ground Cover

Epimedium also known as barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings, and horny goat weed, needs a makeover. An excellent plant for dry shade and deer proof, it deserves a better place in the pantheon of ground covers.  Under used, overlooked, and ignored, this little ground cover is so important when I work on landscape designs, because there is a limited palette of plants that deer leave alone, especially ground covers. Native to Asia and occurring in moist humousy soils, Epimedium also flourishes in dry shade, the nemesis of gardeners everywhere.

Epimedium ‘Lilafee’

I prefer the name “fairy wings” as the delicate flowers resemble fairy wings which are held on slim stems in early spring before the foliage appears. I have a large stand under a Saucer Magnolia which has the double whammy of full shade and very dry soil.

Flowers emerge first and then the foliage in early April under my Magnolia tree; you can see fallen pink petals from the blooms from the tree

It performs beautifully and the only maintenance involved is whacking it back in early spring, because in my area of the mid-Atlantic, it is deciduous. In more southern climes, this ground cover would be evergreen. But don’t think that being deciduous is a drawback for me. Epimedium looks good until December and then once you trim in early March, the beautiful flowers emerge to flutter in the lightest breeze.

Flowers spill over onto a pathway
Flowers spill over onto a pathway and do look like “fairy wings”
As the leaves mature, the foliage of some varieties has a bronze-red tinge on the edges

This is not a specimen plant. You would plant this by the dozen to form an impenetrable mass of plants that weeds can never pierce. And I really mean that! I never weed this once the plants knit together to form a mass. spreading via rhizomes, Epimedium is a tight clumper.

Coming in all kinds of colors – yellow, pink, red, white, and orange – I just planted one hybrid called ‘Orange Queen’. A medium to fast spreader, this little charmer has larger flowers and performs well under the deep shade of an evergreen spruce – a very tough spot!

Delicate flower stems make a cute arrangement

Plantsman are working on introducing new varieties and there has been an explosion of new Epimediums to suit any garden. In the Plant Delights catalog, there are over 50 varieties to pick from.

“Orange Queen” is beautifully marked

But nine times out of ten, if you talk to a gardener, they have never heard of this plant. Usually listed in nursery catalogs as ‘Barrenwort’, I am not surprised! Not a plant with large showy flowers, but a ground cover workhorse for me. And I will repeat, that deer don’t touch it!

Sharing space with spotted Pulmonaria and ‘Purple Dragon’ Lamium, the heart-shaped leaves of Epimedium are delicate

For more ideas on ground covers, other than Vinca, Pachysandra, or Ivy, check out From the Ground Up-Picking a Great Ground Cover.

10 Replies to “Epimedium-Fairy Wings Ground Cover”

  1. I love this plant and stumbled upon it at a local plant sale. It performed beautifully and did supply three strong seasons of constant interest. No maintenance whatsoever for me. I moved to a new home and it took me two years to find a nursery which carried it. Bought some last fall & planted. To my chagrin I thought the plants did not make it. Low and behold, this week delicate flowers and crisp green leaves. Simple pleasures

    1. Homestead should carry it. But I agree, it is hard to locate and you can’t just plant a couple. You need at least a couple dozen.

  2. I love this plant!! ❤️

    If forced to have just one perennial, it would be epimediums. My 9 years of first hand experience with them has only made me love them more. The nine year old ones are still magical, reliable and healthy.

    It’s true that they’re not sold at most nurseries.

    Putnam Hill Nursery, a perennial plant nursery that always offers lovely plants that I don’t see elsewhere, offers gorgeous Epimediums. Unusual ones, of course. Every year I go there seeking any new varieties she may have added.

    You can find Putnam Hill at many of the local Spring events, including the MD Sheep and Wool Festival. If Forest Hill is too far off your beaten path, Melanie will ship to you. The nursery is landscaped (!) and is lovely, so make the trip if you can. Good photos and info on the website, where the events are also listed. You can catch her in MD, Virginia and PA.

    Happy Epimedium gathering!

      1. Cool! I feel so lucky to have such a nursery in the Baltimore area.

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