It is epimedium time again. Something that I always look forward to and am never disappointed by. I discovered my first buried under a bramble thicket in my childhood garden. I can see it now, a survivor of a garden that had been overwhelmed almost fifty years earlier. It was spring and we were clearing the remains of an old border and the soft, marbled foliage was at its most magical April moment. At that point I had never seen anything like it before, the delicate heart-shaped leaves, copper-toned and marbled red with veining. Hovering amongst them and emerging from fine, down-dusted buds were pale flowers. Aptly nicknamed Fairy Wings, they hovered under the tangle of thorns as if they had been waiting all that time to cast their spell on the ten year old me.
The plant in question was Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’, which I use regularly now where something refined, but trustworthy is needed. They thrive in the inhospitable places created by the influence of deciduous trees and shrubs and are perfect for a cool, north facing position. The evergreen foliage forms a low mound of overlapping shields, amounting to no more than a foot in height and reliably creeping slowly sideways. Winter sees the foliage turn from dark green to bronze before it finally gives in as the new growth pushes through. Part the winter foliage at the beginning of March and you see the embryonic new growth already formed. At this point last year’s leaves can be sheared to the ground in established clumps to see the best of the new growth that soon comes to replace the old.
There are a number of good European epimediums and all those available make adaptable and foolproof groundcovers. The gold-flowered E. x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’, with its glossy foliage, is almost indestructible and the small-flowered E. pubigerum is a worthy plant too, with tiny creamy sprays of flower which I regularly include in planting plans. However, about fifteen years or so ago I started to discover the Chinese species, which had slowly been becoming available and since then I’ve been spoiled for good and forever.
The Chinese epimediums are more demanding than their easy European cousins. It would be foolhardy to think you could tuck them under the philadelphus and forget about them until their yearly cutback. They quickly let you know if the atmosphere is too dry, with shrivelling edges to their finely-formed leaves and they fail to put on growth if you don’t emulate the deep leaf-mouldy woodlands to which they are accustomed. I have tried, and then regretted, cutting their foliage back in March, and had to endure two years of sulking in return. But, for their exceptional beauty, they are worth the effort and, once you have cracked what they like and where they like to be, not quite as particular as you might think.
My little obsession started in the sheltered microclimate of the garden in Peckham. I grew them mostly in pots, which were kept in the still and shadow at the garden’s end. In April, after carefully picking over the damaged leaves, they were brought up to the house for us to marvel at their metamorphosis. The emerging leaves, flecked and chequered with bronze, ruby and purple, and the wiry stems pushing through in a reptilian reach, to throw a constellation of flower above them. Each of the species had something particular that set it apart from the others. The jagged foliage of E. fargesii looks almost aggressive, though it is not to the touch, whilst the darkly flecked foliage of E. myrianthum is like river washed pebbles in its roundedness.
I soon found that I had seedlings, which have proven to be highly variable. Specialist nurseries that have been hook-line-and-sinkered, have long lists of named varieties which reflects their willingness to cross. Though I am more selective now about how many seedlings I keep, I do have a particularly good one that looks like it has E. wushanense ‘Caramel’ in its genes, and possibly E. mebranaceum, with sprays well over two feet long, widely-spaced flowers an inch across and dramatically red-speckled foliage.
My conundrum – and my saving grace, for I would have fifty not two dozen by now if I had the conditions – is that I have just one sliver of suitable shelter here on our bright, windy hillside. The recess behind the house in the north shade is just wide enough for three zinc cattle troughs, which have been backfilled with a friable mix of good soil and compost. A wicked March wind from the north east will be their undoing if they have already started into growth, but they have done well for me now that they are out of pots and have reliable moisture at the root. We have three windows that look onto them from the ground floor and they are the stars of these little theatres for six to eight weeks in the spring.
As time goes on, I have found that some are better doers than others and that all the time nurserypeople are selecting improvements. Experience has shown that the straight species E. wushanense struggles here, while it did much better in the increased warmth of London. I have moved it back to be in the shade of the Katsura in the studio garden. However, the named offspring, E. w. ‘Caramel’ does splendidly and must have some more cold-tolerant tolerant blood in it from something hardier. E. fargesii ‘Pink Constellation’ has now been eclipsed in my opinion by a form called ‘Heavenly Purple’, which was bred by Karen Junker’s son, Torsten, and which I was lucky enough to get hold of before she stopped selling them. I shall be swapping them over in the troughs when I am sure I can part with the former. E. franchetii ‘Brimstone Butterfly’, with its flamingo-pink emerging foliage is excellent. Very strong and curiously showy, I like E. ‘King Prawn’. A hybrid raised by Julian Sutton of Desirable Plants, it is said to be a cross between E. latisepalum and a form of E. wushanense collected by Mikinori Ogisu, the famous Japanese plant collector with exquisite taste. Any of his discoveries have the letters Og and a number in their name and are well worth seeking out.
Once you get a number together their promiscuity will find tiny seedlings taking hold in cracks that are to their liking. This year I have two Somerset seedlings in flower for the first time, which I am judging to be worth bringing on – a dusky pink fargesii cross (main image), and a pale, elegant tall grower which looks to have fargesii and ‘Amanagowa’ in it. Right now I have my eye on one that has found a niche in the back wall where there is little else for it but moss and moisture. I am hopeful, of course, that this one will be special too. The excitement is in the wait.