Epimedium a.k.a. Horny Goat Weed

Again, blame it on this long, drawn-out, cold and snowy winter but I am really digging into certain groups of plants and wanting to add more and more of them to the garden. One genus that we already have in abundance at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is Epimedium. The more I study and look at Epimedium, the more I find to love. This rather large genus has 54 different species distributed around Asia, Europe and Northern Africa. It is in the barberry family but please do not let that make you think that you will see thousands of Epimedium seedlings around your garden like you would with a barberry. The seeds on Epimedium are small and slow to germinate. Epimediums slowly spread by way of stolons, with some species spreading faster than others. Do not expect the rapid spread of a bamboo, these plants, also called barrenwort or bishop’s cap, are slow to multiply. The best way to propagate the barrenworts is through division in late summer after flowering.

epimedium acuminatum night mistress www.pithandvigor.com

If you want to divide your plants, dig them after they flower and divide the clump using sharp, bonsai shears. Once you have new divisions, cut the leaves back by one-third to encourage new root growth. More details about cultivation, species, and propagation can be found in this article by Tony Avent.

Exactly what is the draw to Epimediums? I would have to say it is the combination of drought and shade tolerance, deer-resistance, evergreen foliage in warmer climates, and dainty flowers that from a distance, resemble some orchids. Yes, they are deer resistant! Which is a good thing because I would hate to see what would happen if deer developed a taste for the plants. One of the other common names is horny goat weed. You can actually buy horny goat weed in the supplement aisle of your local, fancy health food supermarket. Legend has it that a Chinese species of Epimedium was growing in an area where a goatherder was allowing his flock to graze. After browsing on a patch of epimedium, the goats suddenly became more “active,” if you know what I mean. The plants contain icariin, which acts in a similar fashion to the active ingredient in Viagra. Since this is a family show, I am going to stop this analysis right here and again say that I am glad that deer do not like the plants.

epimedium grandiflorum

Getting back to gardening, the flowers are spectacular. Even though they are small, usually no larger than a couple of inches in diameter, when planted en masse, the flowers make a tremendous impact in the garden. Flower colors range from white to yellow and violet, with many bi-colored flowers. A mass planting of barrenwort gives off an almost misty appearance because the flowering stalks are extremely fine, resembling stiff wires. The flowers dangle above the coarse foliage, with the foliage serving as the perfect back drop to the flowers. The foliage is the perfect complement, coming in different shades of green, with some plants having tinges of red or even some dark purple colored cultivars. One of my favorite species, Epimedium wushanense, has protruding “spines” from each of its leaves. A particular cultivar, ‘Sandy Claws’ has really pronounced “spines” and dark chocolate leaves in the spring. I have written about the species before and now am falling in love with the entire genus.

Barrenworts are still gaining in popularity as a plant to add to the garden. They are slow but steady. If you have a spot where few other flowering plants will grow, give one of the Epimedium a shot this spring.

Rodney

Images: William Cullina

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rodney eason

Rodney Eason - Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, father of 4, husband to a Renaissance woman. I spent the first part of my life in North Carolina, the middle in Pennsylvania, and now I am determined to become a Mainer  while keeping my southern drawl. I consider the rhetorical question, "you're not from around here, are you?" a compliment. I love great gardens, beautiful plants, and inspiring architecture. Because of this, I am on a lifelong quest to find a garden that artistically combines beautiful plants while being centered around an evocative building. For me, this would be Beatrix Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks, with the plants of Lotusland and Chanticleer, around Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel. My wife and I are now making our new home and garden in a 130 year old New England house with a farmer's porch near the Damariscotta River in coastal Maine. When our kids get into college, we want to hike the Appalachian Trail as a family over a summer break. My likes (in random order): the smell of fresh basil and rosemary, bold foliage, India Pale Ale, good running shoes, Top Gear, the smell of New England in the fall (it reminds me a bit of English Leather, which my grandfather wore), and the sound of our family laughing together around the dinner table. I dream of one day owning an old Toyota 4X4 pick-up and seeing the Avett Brothers in concert.

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