growing epimediums in the shade garden, with karen perkins
I WILL CONFESS right off, I love epimediums, but apparently not as much as Karen Perkins, who boasts the largest selection of these choice perennial plants for sale in the United States. Though often thought of by gardeners as simply a tough groundcover for dry shade, epimediums are much more, Karen says.
Karen Perkins has since 2009 owned Garden Visions Epimediums, a small retail mail-order nursery located in rural central Massachusetts, and founded in 1997 by Darrell Probst. She’s also usually open for visits and in-person shopping a couple of spectacular weeks each May during Epimedium peak season; update for 2020: she is doing mail-order and prepaid pickups, though spring garden days had to be canceled.
Read along as you listen to the March 11, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
epimediums for shade gardens, with karen perkins
Q. I wish it weren’t winter, and I wish we could go see the plants right now. So, as I mentioned in the intro, Karen, you’ve been the owner of Garden Vision Epimediums since 2009, and I read on your website that you’re a one-woman band, like a certain Margaret Roach I know. [Laughter.] I was pretty astonished.
A. Yes. I think a lot of people are, they assume that it’s a bigger company, and I’ve had people come here and say, “Oooh, I didn’t realize it was a small business.” But it is.
A. Mostly me, with a little bit of help from my friends.
Q. Yes. That’s great. And how many kinds, how many different varieties of plants are you listing in the catalog at any given time? The online catalog, I mean.
A. I think it’s about 170 different species and varieties of epimediums, but I also have some other companion shade-loving perennials. So, maybe a couple of hundred.
Q. And now, most people, they print out a mail order form, maybe browse through the website, Epimediums dot com. Is that right? Did I get that correct?
A. Correct. And I have a print catalog, as well [update note: no print catalog in 2020].
Q. You do have a print catalog, so, they can order a print catalog, or they can …
A. They can.
Q. Or they can download an order form and fill out stuff that they like online and mail that to you.
A. Right. And the print catalog is online, as well. They can look at that online, or print it out themselves.
Q. O.K. And then, people can come—I do have to confess, I’m planning a trip there. [Laughter.] People can come in May to visit?
A. They can. [Update: Due to restrictions on gatherings and on non-essential business, there are no open days in 2020.] I usually have the nursery open during what I am predicting to be the peak epimedium season. And that’s really the best way to see the plants. You can’t really get a good idea of what they look like, looking at the pictures in the catalog. You have to kind of see them in context in the garden setting.
Q. Epimediums, you know, they have a lot of funny common names. The first one I think I ever remember learning was barrenworts, and then bishop’s hat and fairy wings. And I think I even read in a scientific paper once that another common name was horny goat weed, and who knows what that means? [Laughter.]
Q. But many gardeners know these plants simply as sort of the workhorse groundcovers for dry shade. That’s their sort of synonymous description. But I think you want to encourage us to think a little more widely, don’t you, about them?
A. I do. I think there are several kinds of epimediums that are good for dry shade. They don’t love dry shade, but they’ll tolerate it better than other perennials. One of the problems with epimediums is that they’re not very widely available in the retail garden centers. And the ones that are, that you can find, I think tend to be more of the groundcover, spreading types that are drought tolerant. And so, that’s probably why they’ve gotten that, I guess, tag to them, that they love dry shade. But actually most of them are clumping forms, and they would prefer to have adequate moisture in the soil.
Q. So, name a couple … I think of the first ones, maybe, that I bought. I don’t know how many different kinds I have, but not that many. Maybe a half a dozen. I feel like maybe words that were in their names were like youngianum, and grandiflorum, and ‘Sulphureum’…
A. Some of the ones that are common, that you can commonly find, are Epimedium x rubrum, with a little red flower.
Q. Right, right.
A. That’s a spreader. Also, Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum,’ with yellow flowers and nice red mottling on the spring foliage. And then ‘Orangekonigin’ x warleyense is another spreader that you can commonly find. And x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten.’ Those are all really good drought-tolerant ones.
Q. So, those are the ones that match that sort of presumptive description that people think: dry-shade groundcover.
A. They are.
Q. Good. So, those are the ones that do. But some clump, as opposed to spread.
A. They do. Epimediums are actually woody plants. Most people think of them as herbaceous, but they grow by underground woody rhizomes. So, it’s how much of a growth increment the stem, the rhizome, puts on each year, that determines whether they’re going to form a clump or spread into a patch over time.
Q. And I think that’s something that if anyone ever digs one up, whether to divide it or move it or whatever, you have this weird “aha,” because what you see underground … Well, first of all, in my experience, which again is not vast, but I have had them for many, many years, is that I don’t end up with a big clump of soil around my clump. [Laughter.] The minute I lift it out of the ground, it’s kind of these woody rhizomes [below]. You know what I mean?
A. Right, especially if you’re digging up one of the spreading types.
Q. Yes, yes. So, it’s kind of these strange-looking network of these woody, well, rhizomes, and not a big clod, like if I’d dug up a hosta, I’d end up with a big clod.
A. Right. But actually, if you dig up one of the clumping forms, you’re going to get a big clod like a hosta.
Q. O.K. So, that would be one way, even if you didn’t know, that you’d know—is that they actually have that different behavior.
Q. And then, so, what are some of the clumpers? Some of the ones that are …
A. Actually, some of the ones that you can find in nurseries. One is called ‘Lilafee’. It’s a grandiflorum variety, native to Japan. That’s a clumper. ‘Niveum’, x youngianum ‘Niveum‘ [below] is a white-flowered, little bell-shaped, white-flowered form. That’s a clumper.
Another one, it’s just going out of my head right now, x youngianum ‘Roseum’ sometimes, and grandiflorum ‘Rose Queen,’ which we call ‘Yubae,’ because we think that’s the correct botanical name, because it was a Japanese cultivar originally. That one is a clumper. So, there are quite … most of what I carry, most of the species that I carry, are clumping forms.
Q. O.K., so if they’re clumping forms, they’re not just for that “dry-shade groundcover” use. So what’s their role, then, in the garden, how do you use them in the garden?
A. I use them like I would use any other perennial. I mix them in with others. Actually, my landscape is more of a monoculture, just because I need room for stock.
A. I do throw a few other shade plants in there, but I think they look great mixed in with other shade-loving perennials like hostas, ferns, hellebores, trilliums, especially the different textures of the foliages, looks nice in the garden.
And many of the clump-forming ones, especially some of the new hybrids, are showy. That’s one of the things that people say about epimediums, is that their flowers are small, that they’re not very showy. But some of the new varieties, I would say, would rival any other perennial in the garden.
Q. So, you mentioned foliage, and foliage shapes and so forth, and pairing them with other foliage, shade-garden plants. The foliage in some of them, the ones that are less familiar to me than some that we’ve named so far that you might see at the garden center, it’s very distinctive. I mean, I think on epimediums dot com, you have a sort of a glossary picture of pieces of, leaves of different varieties spread out, maybe on the ground or on a stone or something.
Q. And boy, oh boy, I mean, they’re all over the place in shape and scale.
A. Yes. I made that little collage, because a lot of people say, “All epimediums look the same.” So, I went around the gardens and picked some leaves one summer day. Epimediums are in the barberry family, So, a lot of the, especially the Chinese species, some of them have spiny edges to the leaves. They’re more arrow-shaped, rather than heart-shaped, like the deciduous ones that would be native to Japan and Korea. So, that’s what makes the difference.
Q. And I’ve always had a particular love for the fact that when the fresh foliage emerges early, pretty early in the spring, of even some of the most familiar ones I’ve grown, most of them, it has a striking reddish cast, or part of the leaf is colorful. It’s not just plain green. What’s that about? [Above, the spring foliage of ‘Lavender Lady.’]
A. Yes. Many of the epimediums, when they emerge in the spring, they can have all sorts of wild spring foliage colors. And that’s my favorite thing about them.
Q. Isn’t it amazing? It’s amazing.
A. Yes. I think the older I get, the more I look for foliage over flowers in perennials for the garden. But they’re not just red, some of them are almost black when they come up out of the ground. They can have all sorts of speckling, mottling, splotching, rings around the rims of the leaves. They come in a wild range of patterns and colors. And I think it’s brought on by the cool weather.
There’s some of some of the species, like grandiflorum is a good example, has a second growth flush. Epimediums bloom very, very early in the spring. They’ll bloom with the bulbs, and they’ll push up out of the soil, and the foliage will be have its spring color, if it’s one of the varieties that has that. They’ll bloom, and then the leaves will harden off, turn to green, and the flowers will pass.
But some of them, like grandiflorum, will put up a second growth flush. And if you compare the colors of the spring foliage, from first flush to the second flush, the first flush is usually the more intensely colored of the flushes, and the second flush is sort of a little more washed out. But it still gives you a topknot of colorful foliage into June here. So, if you have a long, cool spring and you have an epimedium that has good foliage color, you can get a really long season of spring interest for about six weeks. [Below, x grandiflorum ‘Orion.‘]
Q. I have them, in some cases, in places where in the main season, maybe you’re not going to see them so much. For instance, I have one big kind of island off a garden shed of sumac, a gold leaf cutleaf staghorn sumac. And so, there’s these twisty, crazy trunks that are naked in the early spring, yes, But they’re kind of interesting structurally. And I have epimedium that’s kind of—it’s maybe 15 feet by 10 feet this island, this bed—and so the epimediums are underneath them, in the middle.
And so, you see this, even from the edge of the bed, or walking across the lawn, it’s in there under the twisty trunks. You see this beautiful foliage thing happening, and then the flowers. And I don’t care so much if you see them in the heat of summer, once the foliage of the sumac is out and things are a little more grown up. I mean, in some places … I guess what I’m saying is, I use them to draw your attention to something before everything else is going on, to play on that colorful foliage and stuff. [Below, ‘Ninja Stars.’]
A. Right. And that’s one of the good things about epimedium that they bloom so early that there’s not much else out in the garden. So, even though their beauty might be a little more subtle than some other perennials, you notice it, because there’s not a lot of anything else up then.
Q. Exactly. So, we talked a little bit about leaf shape and the color, and I sort of think of them, just kind of the ones I have, anyway, I sort of think of them as almost like, “persistent.” I don’t know if I’d say evergreen, but the leaves, they hang around a good long time. And around this time of year, if I could get out, meaning late winter, early spring, if I could get outside—which I can’t right now [laughter]—I would, I would cut back the old foliage. But you know, it stays there for or many of them. Do they all keep their leaves? What’s kind of the persistence of the foliage, so to speak?
A. Well, it depends on the species, really. There are ones that I do consider to be deciduous. Some of the really cold-hardy ones, the hardiest ones, can lose their leaves after the first few frosts.
A. And then some of them have more substance to the leaf and I would consider them evergreen, even though in Massachusetts here, we’re in Zone 5B, and most winters they don’t go through the winter unscathed. You would want to cut the foliage back on them. So, I either do it in the fall. I have a lot of foliage to cut back.
Q. I bet you do. [Laughter.]
A. So, I do some of them—I do the deciduous ones in the fall, if I have time, and then the evergreen or semi-evergreen ones in the springtime. But even if you don’t make it out into your garden to get them cut back, there’s nothing to worry about, because the new growth will come up through the old foliage and eventually it’ll cover it over and you won’t even see it. And it’ll make your plant larger, because it sort of reaches up above the old leaves.
Q. Oh, interesting. Because I always say to people who say, “Well, how do you get all your hellebores cut back in time, and how do you get all your epimediums cut back in time?” And I’m like, “You know what, in nature, nobody cuts the stuff back. So, it’s O.K. to leave it. It’s O.K.” It looks a little messy for a minute there, in that transition moment.
A. It does.
Q. But then, as you say, the new stuff is lifted up by it, and it’s good. It’s O.K.
Q. You just said you cut back which ones, when? Give us some examples.
A. It’s just mostly because I have so many to cut back. I do the deciduous ones, because they’re sort of brown and ugly in the fall. And then, I leave the evergreen ones so I can enjoy them a little bit. But in our zone, I would say they usually stay pretty good and evergreen until maybe the middle of January. Sometimes if you get good snow cover, some of them will come through in the spring, and if the foliage still looks good, you can leave it.
A. But that is not very often in our area. Further south, they would be much more reliably evergreen.
Q. And how hardy … I mean, I know that there are a number of species, and maybe I should ask you: How big is the genus, do you think? I mean, is it dozens of species?
A. I think there’s around 70 different species now.
Q. Oh, my goodness. O.K.
A. So, there’s been kind of an explosion. In 1975, there were 21 species described. So, there’s been an explosion the last few years, especially in the 90s, mostly because of China, plant explorers going to China and discovering new species. Actually, Darrell and a woman that he worked with, Joanna Zhang, who did some collecting trips for him, they helped to describe several species. Their name is on the original herbarium specimens for this, describing the species.
Q. And that’s Darrell Probst, the founder of Garden Vision Epimediums.
A. It is, yes.
Q. So, when I cut mine back, I don’t have anywhere, even a tenth or a hundredth as many as you do, but I have some big swaths. And I have to confess that lately I’ve been using hedge shears [laughter], and I kind of get down real low and go “whop.” You know what I mean?
Q. I know that sounds maybe a little nutty and not quite as gentle, but it doesn’t disturb the plants; they’re brittle by then. So, what do you do? What do you use, the hand shears?
A. Mine is a special case, because I have to worry about all the labeling, the labels.
A. So, I actually have like a curved, serrated stainless steel knife that I use. That goes really quickly. I used to use pruners or scissors. But you know, I’ve heard of people, if you have a big patch of a running epimedium, there’s nothing wrong with running a lawnmower over it.
Q. Right, before everything emerges, before the new …
A. Yes. Whatever works for you. I find the knife works the quickest for me, because I have to be a little careful, just keeping track of the different varieties.
Q. I’m going to have to find out about that knife. I don’t know that.
A. Yes. You know, I got it from Lee Valley Tools, and I’ve been trying to get them to carry it again. They’ve discontinued it. And I’ve searched for it on the internet, and I found one source in Australia. But somebody … it’s an inexpensive $10 knife, and it’s worth gold to me. I used to give it out as Christmas presents.
A. I cut my ornamental grasses back with that.
Q. Oh, yes.
A. Anything that’s kind of difficult, it makes it much easier than using pruners. It doesn’t make your hand is tired.
Q. And now, so, there are maybe as many as 70 species. But the ones that we generally cultivate, or the ones that you might be showcasing in the catalog and on the website, is there like a zone range of hardiness?
A. I would say a safe range for most of them is 5 to 7. But you know, I have customers in northern Vermont, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have customers in Atlanta, Georgia, that tell me that they can pretty much grow whatever I can grow here. So, I’m still learning about the hardiness. And on the website and in the catalog, I give people recommendations of things they should try if they live in certain parts of the country. But that doesn’t mean that other ones won’t grow well for them. [Below, those hardiness thoughts from the Garden Vision website.]
more on epimedium zone hardiness
THOUGH Missouri Botanical Garden and other online plant encyclopedias often list various epimediums as Zones 4-8 or even 5-9 depending on the species, Karen Perkins has more nuanced thoughts on which ones will work for extra-cold or extra-hot zones, if you garden outside of Zones 5-7. The GVE catalog explains how to select the best for your spot:
“Hardiness: Unless otherwise stated in their descriptions, ALL plants offered here have thrived in our nursery (USDA Zone 5b), although we usually have snow cover in winter. Many of these species/varieties are new to cultivation and have not been tested as to their environmental limits elsewhere.
“Customers in extreme weather areas often ask for suggestions as to which epimediums will grow in their climate. For those gardening in USDA Zones 8 and 9, we suggest you first try plants categorized as heat-tolerant (look under the Find Plants tab in the header).
“Those in Zones 3 & 4 are advised to start with plants categorized as cold-tolerant. Epimediums do not tolerate rapid freezing and thawing, especially if their rhizomes are exposed. We recommend at least a few inches of mulch and caution against holding the plants in pots over winter—it is very risky!”
- An article on growing epimediums at the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden is Seattle (Zone 8) may be of interest, too.
A. I find in general, the Chinese species are a little … I think they’re at the edge of their hardiness here for me in zone 5B, and some of them struggle along. So, sometimes I can’t put them in the catalog, because I don’t have a lot of the crop. But other species, like fargesii and stellulatum, they grow really fine for me, and they’re from China as well. When Darrell did his collecting in China, he would collect at a certain elevation, 3,000 feet, so that he was trying to bring back clones that would be hardy enough for us to grow outdoors here in Massachusetts. So, most of them have done pretty well, and some of them has done extremely well. [Below, a range of flower forms and sizes from some Chinese varieties.]
Q. And they don’t seem to attract animals, herbivorous animals, to my eye. I haven’t really ever noticed anyone munching on them. Are they resistant?
A. They’re deer-resistant. Sometimes the deer will nibble them, but they don’t really crave them. Sometimes people have trouble with rabbits eating the new growth.
Q. [Laughter.] Rabbits will eat anything.
A. Yes. Once the leaves hardened off, they don’t seem to bother them, but sometimes they nibble the new growth. But the good thing about epimediums is that they have dormant buds. So, even if they eat all the foliage off the plants, the stem and the buds are underground, so they’ll eventually force new growth.
Q. I wanted to talk about how you’ve sort of alluded to some of the showy hybrids, and some that are different from the typical stereotype of epimedium. So, I wanted to kind of just hear about a few that you’d love us to know that are different, that maybe have won your particular affection, and also then some of the companions that go with them.
A. They are.
Q. Yes, I loved loved finding that out. I don’t how many decades ago I found that out and it was like, “Really? How can that be?” But anyway, what are some of the ones you’d love us to kind of know about that are different?
A. People are always asking me what my favorite is, and that’s like asking you what your favorite food is. You have so many favorite things.
Q. I know. Or children. [Laughter.]
A. But I said if I had a gun to my head and I had to choose, I probably would pick ‘Pink Champagne’ [above]. It’s a hybrid of Darrell’s, and it has long wands of pink, spidery flowers over arrow-shaped foliage that gets some dark speckling in spring. And it blooms for a long time, and the flowers are held high, and they’re a bright color that reads from across the garden.
It has a sibling hybrid that’s been introduced called ‘Domino.’ I think of it as the boy plant and the girl plant, that ‘Pink Champagne’ is pink with pink in the foliage, and the boy plant has more masculine colors, white and cranberry flowers with not so much pink in the foliage, and it’s a bigger plant.
Q. I’m sure it’s not PC for us to give it attributes like that, but who cares, right? [Laughter.]
A. [Laughter.] Well, it’s a good way to describe it –
Q. No, no, I know.
A. …so people will understand. But they’re both very vigorous-growing plants, and if you wanted a specimen epimedium … People ask me, “If I would buy one, which one would you recommend?”
Q. I see.
A. And that gets quite large, so you can use it as a specimen.
Q. O.K. So, ‘Pink Champagne’ and her brother, ‘Domino.’
A. Yes, her brother, ‘Domino.’ There’s also another one called ‘Lilac Cascade’ that gets quite large. It has a red coloration at the edges of the leaves, and lavender flowers, and it’s very good and drought tolerant. It’s one of the clumping forms. Usually the drought-tolerant ones are the spreading ones, but this one is a good drought tolerant clumping one that makes a good show in the garden. And it’s tough.
A. That’s one thing I want to mention about it. I mean, they look really delicate, but they’re one of the toughest plants in the border.
Q. And again, when you uproot them and you see what’s underground, I think you get it. You know, like you said, it’s a woody plant, right? It’s not some herbaceous thing that at a moment’s … if it doesn’t get a drop of water every minute, it’s just going to perish because it’s so delicate. It seems tougher to me.
And what about some of the companions that you sell? I mentioned Jeffersonia, the twinleaf, and Vancouveria. What other things do you like or not like with them?
A. What other companion plants?
Q. Yes. You mentioned hostas before. I mean, are there other things that you showcase in the catalog that you can tell me about that we should look for?
A. I carry a Trillium pusillum called ‘Roadrunner.’ It’s a very early blooming one. It comes up about a week before the epimediums, and has almost black foliage with little white flowers. And unlike most trilliums, it propagates very quickly, so it clumps up more quickly than other trilliums.
And then, there’s another plant called Cardamine, which is those little, Cardamine trifolia, which is a little groundcover with sort of clover-like leaves and bright white flowers, that blooms right around the same time as the epimediums. It doesn’t spread very much. It would be a good low-growing plant for in between rocks, or along the edge of a border.
Q. Well, Karen Perkins of Garden Vision Epimediums, I’m so happy to talk to you. Thank you so much.
A. Oh, you’re welcome, Margaret. Thanks for inviting me.
Q. Can’t wait to see you soon.
more from garden vision epimediums
(All photos from Karen Perkins at Garden Vision Epimediums.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 11, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify
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