Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Beads of Frost, Rays of Sun

Right now I am loving the patches of epimediums that grow under two trees in my garden. In early December this sturdy groundcover just shines. Frost decorates the foliage in the mornings, and in the afternoons the low sunlight makes the papery translucent leaves sparkle.

Epimedium perralchicum 'Frohnleiten'

Under the flowering dogwood tree at the front walk 'Frohnleiten' has turned bronze and copper and olive green. It's a beautiful, complex mix of autumn colors still going strong into winter.

A second patch grows under the maple tree in the back garden. This is 'Rubrum' and it has a more uniform coppery fall color with an occasional red leaf peeking out.

Epimedium alpinum 'Rubrum'

The leaves are curled and shaggy looking now, but the warm color is nice with a clump of still green 'Ice Dance' carex next to it. These are two tough plants that laugh at winter.

Epimediums are great plants to cover a spot of dry earth under the shade of trees, but they spread very slowly. It takes four years to get a patch going, and they don't grow incrementally each year -- they simply do nothing for three years, not bulking up even one bit to your impatient dismay, and then in year four they move out and cover quite a bit of ground quite expansively.

They have cute nodding flowers on tiny stems in spring that look like little hats, and one common name is bishop's hat for that reason, or sometimes fairy wings, which describes their airiness. But epimediums are most commonly called barrenwort, (old English "wort" meaning medicinal plant) because the plant contains the compound in sildenafil, so it was used  to ward off infertility from erectile dysfunction. If you watch TV and suffer through Viagra ads, you know what sildenafil is.

The sweet flowers and aphrodisiac uses are benefits of these plants, but it's their foliage and ability to cover ground that I love. They have interesting leaves in summer, and those leaves make a lush carpet under trees where little will grow. They do well in tough conditions because they have tenacious roots (I've tried to divide some and it's a job), wiry stems, and stiff leaves that don't tear or wilt.

And look at how they behave in winter, turning bronzy and curling, but still carpeting the ground thickly as they catch beads of frost and rays of sunlight in the cold winter air.

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