Epimediums aren't just pretty. They're tough.

Epimediums are prized for their good looks—and their tough nature: In fact, epimedium's shallow rooting habit and tolerance of shade and drought make it one of the few ground covers that thrive under large shade trees.

These perennials spread at a slow to moderate rate from thin rhizomes; some tend to grow in clumps, while more vigorous varieties will form a mat several feet across. They have handsome heart-shaped leaves held up on wiry stems. New foliage is bright green, often shaded with red, and it matures to deep green. (Foliage is evergreen in warmer climates.)

Shade gardeners will revel in the many beautiful new hybrid epimediums introduced in recent years. In early spring, branched flower stalks arise and bear many small nodding flowers in white, yellow, pink, red, lavender or purple.

Common name: Epimedium, barrenwort, bishop's hat, fairy wings

Botanical name: Epimedium spp.

Plant type: Herbaceous perennial

Zones: 4, 5, or 6 to 9 (depending on variety)

Height: 8 to 12 inches

Family: Berberidaceae

Growing conditions

• Sun: Part or full shade

• Soil: Well-drained loam to thin, rocky soil; for best growth, provide ample organic matter

• Moisture: Medium; drought tolerant once established

Care

• Mulch: None, or ½ to 1 inch of organic mulch such as pine needles

• Pruning: Cut back old foliage in late winter before new growth starts.

• Fertilizer: Apply compost or diluted soluble fertilizer as needed.

Propagation

• Division

Pests and diseases

• No major problems

Cultivars

E. ‘Black Sea' has yellow and apricot flowers and foliage that turns deep purple in winter; it spreads well, so it's a good choice for a ground cover.

E. grandiflorum ‘Lilifee' has pretty violet flowers and a compact growth habit.

E. grandiflorum ‘Rose Queen' has showy purplish-rose flowers.

E. sempervirens 'Cherry Hearts' (top square photo, courtesy of Wayside Gardens) features dramatic red leaf margins.

E. ‘Sunny and Share' has loads of butter yellow flowers and green leaves flecked with reddish bronze.

E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum' has large yellow flowers and evergreen foliage; it's widely available and spreads readily in the garden.

Garden notes

• Combine epimedium with other shade plants like hostas, ferns, astilbes and columbines.

• Epimedium's early blooms complement spring bulb flowers such as crocus and miniature daffodils.

All in the family

• Epimedium is a member of the barberry family (Berberidaceae), which includes trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.

• In addition to barberry, shrubs in this family include grape hollies (Mahonia) and heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica).

• There are about 45 species of epimedium, many of them introduced from China in the past few decades.

Where to buy

• Edelweiss Perennials, edelweissperennials.com

• Plant Delights Nursery, plantdelights.com

• Wayside Gardens, waysidegardens.com