How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Epimediums

Epimediums are small perennials that grace the shade garden with colorful foliage and flowers. Cultivated in numerous varieties, epimediums are carefree growers whose dynamic leaves and flowers bring a gentle “wow” to woodland plantings in spring and beyond. Join garden professional Katherine Rowe in exploring how to incorporate epimediums into shady garden sites.

Vivid purple Epimedium flowers bloom; their delicate petals unfurling gracefully against a blurred backdrop of verdant leaves.

Contents

Beloved epimediums charm with both their foliage and flowers, offering the best of delicate beauty with a rugged constitution. These low-growing, compact perennials bring color, texture, and form to the shade garden for multi-season appeal.

Attractive and easy to grow, epimedium varieties grow in an array of color options in both flower and leaf. Many feature kaleidoscopic leaves with unique color transitions in spring, summer, and fall. Flowers emerge in spring in an array of colors and forms.

For gardeners familiar with growing epimediums, they’re likely among your favorite woodland and shade garden ground covers. Low-maintenance and long-lived, epimediums are both delicate and durable in the landscape.

Overview

Pink and white Epimediums swaying gracefully on slender stems, set against a backdrop of soft, blurred greenery.
The Epimedium is an herbaceous perennial plant that belongs to the Berberidaceae family.
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Family Berberidaceae
Genus Epimedium
Native Area Asia, Mediterranean
Exposure Partial shade to shade
Height 6-16 inches
Watering Requirements Low
Pests and Diseases Disease-resistant; possible vine weevils, slugs, mosaic virus
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Average
Hardiness Zone 5-8

What are Epimediums?

Delicate purple Epimedium flowers gracefully rest on variegated leaves; their slender petals a subtle contrast against the lush greenery.
Epimediums are versatile shade garden plants with medicinal uses.

Epimediums bring colorful foliage and flowers to the shade garden. These low-growing perennials spread slowly through rhizomes to create a small colony (only about three feet wide maximum at maturity). Plants have a spreading or mounding habit and form a textural ground cover. 

Epimediums aren’t aggressive spreaders; they’re tidy, well-behaved garden performers that grace the shade garden with layers of interest. At only about one foot high and wide, they make lovely accents in woodland plantings, borders, rock gardens, cottage gardens, and Asian-inspired garden plantings. Pair them in groups with other shade-loving perennials like ferns, astilbe, hellebore, wild ginger, columbine, bleeding heart, and hosta for gorgeous multi-season combinations.

The delicate look of the plant belies its durable nature. Epimediums are low-maintenance and grow in conditions that other perennials may find difficult. They’re ideal in partial to full-shade garden locations and tolerate dry conditions when established.

Cultivated for centuries in Asia, epimediums in herbal medicine treat fatigue, arthritis, inflammation, and other conditions. The edible leaves are usually soaked or boiled to reduce bitterness. Heavily hybridized for over 150 years, the genus holds over 50 species and numerous hybrids and cultivars.

Characteristics

A close-up of an Epimedium flower displaying delicate white and violet hues, encircled by variegated green and purple leaves.
Their flowers resemble fairy wings or a bishop’s hat.

Epimediums feature attractive heart-shaped or arrow-shaped leaves in interesting colors and patterns. In the spring, new growth emerges fresh, bright green, or in tones of bronze and burgundy red, depending on the variety. Fall color may be purple to burgundy for added interest. The long, three- to six-inch leaves are bristly with fine hairs along serrate margins.

The foliage is a striking feature of epimediums, with leaves lasting into winter in many environments. Plants are either evergreen, semi-evergreen, or deciduous, depending on the variety and winter conditions.

In addition to epimedium’s sweet leaves, its petite, wild, orchid-like blooms emerge in spring and early summer, usually from May to June. Wiry stems arch above foliage with clusters of flowers in white, peach, yellow, lavender, purple, pink, red, and bicolor. 

Flowers are four-petaled, with sepals and stamens that bring flare to resemble fairy wings, a bishop’s hat (both are common names for epimediums), or a butterfly in flight. Small nectar tubes attract pollinators.

Epimediums grow with little gardener intervention. These carefree beauties resist deer, pests, and diseases and tolerate deep shade and dry soils when established. Shallow roots make them well-suited to planting beneath trees, where they don’t compete for resources.

Native Area

Pink flowers and deep purple buds of the Epimedium plant sway gently as they bathe in the sunlight.
These plants offer a diverse range of cultivars and hybrids.

Epimediums grow naturally in East Asia, particularly in western China, with some species native to the Mediterranean region. Extensive cultivars and hybrids exist, and with new species discovered in China in recent decades, the availability of burgeoning selections brings exciting new varieties to the market.

Native habitats for epimediums include deciduous woodlands, moist areas near waterfalls and streambanks, and along mountain outcrops.

Planting

Epimedium leaves display heart shapes prominently, standing out against a softly blurred background of surrounding weeds.
These plants thrive in containers with well-draining soil and dappled light.

Epimediums grow at a slow to medium rate, taking about a year to establish. Plants fill in slowly to reach their maximum width of 12 to 18 inches. The spreading rhizomes gradually form a clump, with the most vigorous growers reaching about three feet wide. 

Planting epimediums in groups makes a lovely display for a more significant impact. Space plants one foot apart to allow for mature growth and infill.

Epimediums grow successfully in containers in addition to in-ground planting. They appreciate a well-draining potting mix rich in organic matter, dappled light or shade, and regular moisture.

Transplanting 

Purple Epimedium flowers bloom vibrantly, set against a softly blurred backdrop of green and brown-hued leaves.
Improve dry or rocky soil by incorporating compost or organic matter.

Like most perennials, epimediums can be planted year-round, with the best conditions generally in spring and fall. Cool temperatures and seasonal moisture give plants time to establish before winter and summer temperature fluctuations. Avoid frozen or waterlogged conditions and extreme heat or drought periods for the least stress on the new plant.

When planting in dry or rocky soils, break up the soil and amend it with compost or other organic material like leaf mold to add nutrients, retain moisture, and increase aeration.

How to Grow

Epimediums are carefree, unfussy plants with low maintenance needs. They tolerate a variety of growing conditions, though certain cultural requirements are best for optimal health and flowering.

Light

Lush Epimedium plant displays vibrant leaves and peach-colored flowers basking in the warm embrace of the radiant sun.
They require protection from harsh afternoon rays.

Epimediums grow best in dappled light or light shade, though they handle a variety of light conditions. They tolerate deep shade, and in more northern climates, epimediums withstand sunnier conditions as long as they receive regular water in the hotter months. 

In garden locations with more sunlight, epimediums benefit from the morning sun. They need protection from direct afternoon rays that scorch leaves.

Water

A close-up of Epimedium leaves glistening with moisture, their succulent surfaces reflect the surrounding light.
Epimediums thrive with consistent but not overly wet soil.

Consistently moist soils are best for epimediums. Once established, epimediums grow in dry shade as drought-tolerant perennials (underground rhizomes retain moisture). Epimediums take time to get established and benefit from irrigation during the first and second growing seasons during dry spells. When epimediums experience periods of drought, growth naturally slows.

While even moisture is ideal, soil can dry a bit between waterings. Epimediums wither in soggy conditions. Potted epimediums need water more regularly than those in the garden bed since containers dry out faster than ground soils. The same holds for epimediums growing in sunny locations in cooler climates—regular water during the warm season promotes the best vigor.

Soil

Brown sandy loam soil with a mixture of fine and coarse particles, providing a nutrient-rich foundation for plant growth.
Amend soil with compost for improved aeration and moisture retention.

Epimediums prefer loose, rich, neutral to slightly acidic soils, with many native to alkaline soils. They thrive in fertile, well-draining soils with even moisture but don’t protest if conditions are less than ideal.

These perennials grow in a variety of soil types, from clay to loam to sand, though they don’t do well in heavy or wet soils. Ideal soils contain organic material added to the native soil. At planting, add three to six inches of compost from completely broken-down plant material, especially in poor soils like clay and sand. Compost will help with aeration, moisture retention, drainage, and nutrition. 

Temperature and Humidity

Purple Epimedium flowers bloom above the green leaves; their delicate petals creating a mesmerizing display.
The characteristics of various Epimedium species and hybrids vary from deciduous to evergreen.

Epimediums are frost-tolerant perennials, hardy in USDA zones 5-8 with some hardy to zone 4. A late spring frost can damage flowers, so protect those early bloom spikes if temperatures drop into the 20°F (-7°C) range or lower. Epimediums benefit from protection from cold winter winds.

Generally, Asian species are deciduous, and Mediterranean species are evergreen to semi-evergreen, with numerous cultivars and hybrids in between. Deciduous varieties tend to be more cold-hardy, while semi-evergreen epimediums drop more leaves in colder winter climates.

Cold hardy selections to zone 4 include E. x warleyense, and E. x cantabrigiense.

Fertilizing

A pair of hands gently cradle a small mound of compost soil, symbolizing nurturing and care.
They benefit from soil tests to address nutrient deficiencies.

With fertile soils, epimediums don’t require additional fertilizing to thrive. They’ll benefit from fresh compost each spring in the ground and in containers.

If you notice deficiencies in the leaves (yellowing, stunted growth), a simple soil test through your local extension service detects which nutrients are low. A low-grade organic fertilizer doesn’t harm epimediums, but strong fertilizers and residual salts cause weakness.

Maintenance

An Epimedium plant reveals its green leaves and striking purple flowers, showcasing its unique features up close.
Prune worn leaves before new growth and flowers emerge in deciduous plants.

Epimediums require little maintenance beyond removing old leaves and dividing after a few years. To maintain a fresh appearance and to make room for delicate new growth, remove old leaves on evergreen and semi-evergreen selections in late winter before new growth emerges. 

Leaves may be ragged after a growing season, followed by winter weather. Cut back or sheer worn leaves before new growth and flower scapes appear. On deciduous varieties, flower scapes may emerge before foliage.

Propagation

Epimediums propagate easily through plant division. Since epimedium is a clump-forming perennial, it divides readily.

Division

A close-up of the Epimedium plant features a cluster of purple flowers amidst lush green leaves.
Propagate plants by dividing them into segments after flowering.

While epimediums are slow-growers, they benefit from division every three years to prevent overcrowding and promote overall plant health. Division benefits the plant, so you can easily make more epimediums while improving plant vigor.

Divide plants after flowering or in late summer/early fall. Cut the plant and its roots into segments using a spade, sharp knife, or serrated blade. Ensure each new plant part has a bundle of intact roots and leaves (at least two-thirds of leaves intact). Plant the new divisions in your desired garden spots and keep them well-watered until established.

Growing From Seed

Dark purple Epimedium flowers cling to their slender stems amidst a verdant backdrop of lush green leaves.
Seeding epimediums yields diverse hybrids within one to two years.

Grow epimediums from seed by sowing fresh seeds and allowing cold-stratification over the winter. Collect seeds as they fall (which is difficult) and direct sow them in a prepped garden area, covering them lightly with soil. Or, let them fall in place onto prepped soil to germinate naturally. They’ll do best with two to three months in temperatures below 40°F (4°C).

Seeding epimediums is easy, though it is a slow process to reach robust plants. The patient gardener can expect blooms after seeding in one to two years (or three to four). Seeds won’t be true to type, as most epimediums are hybrids, but it’s a fun way to see what pops up to expand the collection.

Once you start growing epimediums, you’ll likely want to expand the garden collection. An array of varieties with unique blooms and foliage colors, patterns, and forms make for exciting combinations.

Epimedium  x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’

Yellow 'Sulphureum' Epimedium flowers bloom against a blurred background of additional blossoms, showcasing a vibrant display.
This variety is a tough, fast-growing plant with contrasting evergreen foliage.

Epimedium x versicolor is a striking selection for its color-changing leaves. ‘Sulphureum’ is an award-winning variety whose new leaves emerge light green with red mottling, mature to deeper green, and turn red again in the fall. Open sprays of creamy yellow flowers appear on dark red stems.

E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ is a recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. An older hybrid selected prior to 1849, ‘Sulphureum’ fills in more quickly than other varieties and has a particularly tough nature, durable in dry shade.

Evergreen foliage beautifully contrasts the light flower scapes. Plants reach 12 inches tall and spread up to 18 inches.  E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ is hardy in zones 5-9,

Epimedium x youngianum ‘Niveum’

White 'Niveum' Epimedium flowers on thin brown stems, contrasted against a soft-focus backdrop of yellow and green foliage in a garden setting.
A petite hybrid called ‘Niveum’ brightens shade gardens with its vibrant blooms.

This snowy barrenwort features clusters of white flowers that bloom later in the season than other epimediums and is cold hardy, down to zone 4. New growth emerges bright green with red streaks and blushes. Leaves turn green in the summer and bronzey-red in the fall.

E. x youngianum ‘Niveum’ has pure white star flowers with yellow centers that bloom on red stems in late spring. A petite and compact epimedium, ‘Niveum’ grows six to eight inches tall with a spread of one and a half feet. 

E. x youngianum is a hybrid between E. diphyllum and E. grandiflorum and another Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit recipient. This deciduous epimedium brightens the shade garden with its bright flowers and foliage interest in spring, summer, and fall.

Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’

'Lilafee' Epimedium flowers, adorned with intricate white and purple petals, bask in the warm sunlight, while their leaves provide a contrast in the background.
This plant boasts lavender-violet clusters and evergreen foliage.

Epimedium grandiflorum is one of the original species in cultivation and one of the most vigorous growers. It’s also the parent plant to many additional cultivars.

Spring foliage emerges with a bronze-purple tinge and matures to medium green. E. grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’ boasts clusters of lavender-violet flowers and evergreen foliage (except in colder climates, zones 5 and 6, where it’s mostly deciduous). ‘Lilafee’ is hardy in zones 5-8.

E. grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’ grows to 18 inches tall and up to two feet wide. It is native to deciduous woodlands in Japan, Manchuria, and Korea. The plants tolerate deep shade and dry sites but are not suited to alkaline soils. They grow best in neutral or only slightly acidic soils.

Common Problems

Fortunately, epimediums are free of most pests and diseases. They may occasionally be affected by slugs, vine weevils, and mosaic virus. The best control is prevention through meeting optimal cultural requirements. Attracting beneficial insects to the garden helps manage pests, too, and promotes biodiversity. Wildlife, like birds and frogs, eat certain pests and reward the garden with ecological services for pest management.

Pests

A close-up of a cluster of small, black aphids on the surface of a leaf; their presence causes damage to the plant's delicate tissues.
Common garden insects like aphids can be managed with non-chemical methods.

The best way to control insects is to spot them early. You’ll likely see the insects themselves or notice their sticky waste on plants, nibble damage, yellowing leaves, or stunted growth.

Aphids are common garden insects usually treated with non-chemical means. Often, they cause no plant damage, but severe infestations cause plant stress. Signs of stress include curled leaves and stunted growth. For epimediums, they may spread mosaic virus (see below).

Slugs may be unwelcomed epimedium visitors, though they generally don’t severely damage the plants. Set beer or soda traps (dishes of beer or Coke that entice the slugs for a swim) at soil level, or manually pick off the pests in the morning if you see damage.

Vine weevils are a group of beetles that feed on plant roots in the grub stage and on leaves in the adult stage. The adults may eat epimedium leaves, but as with slugs, they rarely cause significant damage or plant stress. The grubs are less likely to be a problem with in-ground plantings than container specimens, but their root damage impacts the plants, leading to weakness and an inability to thrive.

If you detect insect infestation, spray the plant with a strong stream of water to deter and knock insects off the stems. For vine weevils, sticky traps are effective. Or try shaking the plants gently at dusk over newspaper or cardboard to displace the insects for removal. A simple horticultural soap can rid the plant of insects, but follow label directions, as these also affect beneficial insects. 

Diseases

White Epimedium flowers gently sway in the sunlight, while the rustic brown leaves surrounding them provide a warm and earthy contrast.
A group of plant diseases called mosaic virus causes mottled, distorted leaves.

As with pests, the best disease control is prevention through cultural conditions. In general, remove problem plants from the garden to minimize chemical treatments and promote the health of surrounding plants.

Mosaic virus is a group of plant diseases that causes mottled, disfigured, and distorted leaves. Some vegetables and ornamentals, including epimediums, are susceptible to mosaic virus. Leaves may bear a mosaic pattern, become curled or stunted, or turn yellow-green. 

Aphids spread the disease between plants, so spotting them and preventing infestation is an excellent cultural step. If plants show signs of mosaic virus, remove them from the garden to prevent the spread. Once a mosaic virus is present, there’s no treatment.

Final Thoughts

Epimediums create a gentle ground cover, spreading slowly and easily controlled or divided as needed. Once established, these easy-care, tough perennials require little care but bring delicate charm to the shade garden.

Epimedium’s graceful leaves are attractive all season but especially lovely in spring and fall. The combination of fresh foliage and flowers in spring is a striking combination, dazzling shady spots with sparkles of subtle bloom sprays. Epimediums are lovely even when not in flower because of their texture and form with dynamic foliage and color-transformations.

Enjoy epimediums in a tapestry among other shade-loving perennials in the woodland garden or border, or underplant epimediums with spring bulbs for a seasonal display (their leaves conceal bulb foliage as it fades). This compact plant packs loads of garden-worthy qualities to become one of your favorite shade performers.

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