E. xperralchicum'Wisley'DSC00129

Beautiful late season foliage of Epimedium xperralchicum ‘Wisley’

Last summer, as I was weeding late one quiet afternoon in the nursery, I was struck by the understated beauty of the foliage of many of the Epimediums surrounding me. I decided to focus this article on green summer foliage, or the “sensible shoes” of the Epimedium world. Epimediums,  by their very nature, are not “in your face” kinds of plants, especially during the summer, when they are known more for their subtle, elegant foliage beauty. I have chosen the following selections as exceptional, particularly durable types that add structure and a long season of handsome foliage interest to the garden. Many of the newer Chinese species have exceptional, large, spiny leaflets of good substance, worthy of specimen plant status in the garden. But here, I am focusing on the leafier, faster-growing plants (at least in our short Massachusetts growing season) that blend, rather than stand out in the garden, that is, until you take a closer look. I know that this isn’t a very compelling topic, but for the serious gardener, it is an important one. And I would like to share my expertise as someone who had the extreme good fortune of being able to compare hundreds of different types, side by side. The following varieties have impressed me with their foliage quality as well as how they hold up through drought and later wintry cold, giving shape and form to the garden. Many of the varieties I list also put on a spectacular spring show, but I made my selections by focusing on the qualities of their mature foliage late in the growing season. The first plant to catch my eye was E. xperralchicum ‘Wisley’. The sun was low in the sky and caught the sheen of its particularly handsome, large, rounded, glossy leaflets. I even walked over to another patch of it growing in a different area of the garden, just to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. For many years, this clone didn’t distinguish itself in my mind as being all that much different from the other E. x perralchicums and E. pinnatum ssp. colchicums.  But in my experience, it bears the shiniest foliage of all of the clones that I grow. Difficult to describe, the surface of the leaflets “puffs” up between the veins, forming many angled facets that reflect the sunlight. A running evergreen groundcover Epimedium, it bears spires of small, cheerful lemon-yellow blooms in early spring. This plant alone inspired me to take note of others in my collection for their subtle, yet useful, summer foliage beauty. A second evergreen spreader worthy of attention is E. pinnatum ssp. colchicum L321, one of my favorites for its smaller, more delicate leaflets that give a unique textural component to a groundcover bed. It has similar flowers to ‘Wisley’ with similar spreading rhizomes growing 6-8” a year, but a much different shape and size to the leaflets. Both are low-growing at 8-10” high. Another wavy edged, deep green summer beauty is E. x ‘Making Waves’ although it is not as evergreen as the former two types, and is a clumper, rather than a spreader. It does hold up well through summer drought. It provides a beautiful late spring bloom (later than most other deciduous Epimediums) with its long-spurred mauve and soft pink flowers with new spring leaflets softly edged in a dark band. Two other clumpers with less flamboyant spring foliage are E. xyoungianum ‘Grape Fizz’ and E. xyoungianum ‘Azusa’.  Both are relatively small plants, forming neat clumps. Grape Fizz’ is literally covered with soft grape-purple blooms over lime-green foliage with a brown tint in spring. Azusa’ has beautiful heart shaped leaves with a “star” shape over the veins that appears in spring, but unlike most other foliage color, it remains over the summer, contrasting with the deep green foliage. The medium-sized crisp white flowers on red pedicels give this plant a clean appearance. Both have exceptional foliage all season long, well into late fall/early winter here in Massachusetts. I would consider them both to be semi-evergreen, as they retain their green leaves until the weather really turns brutal. E. x versicolor ‘Cherry Tart’stands out to me for its unusual hot pink and medium pink flowers (most Epimediums described as pink, are actually lavender), and its different foliage. The leaflets are rounded, heart-shaped, and retain their fresh green color through the season turning different shades in fall, depending on the weather. Some years the same plants will be an unusual mustard color, while during others it darkens to a deep purple. E. x Enchantress’ is another low-growing spreader, but with a much different texture to the foliage. Not an aggressively spreader, ‘Enchantress’ lives up to its name by providing long delicate, slightly spiny dark evergreen leaves that give a fine texture to the small patch that it expands to over several years. The leaves turn a reliable, rich red each autumn. In spring it holds pale pink flowers wide-sepaled  flowers over delicately speckled light green foliage.  Two other varieties with similar, but larger, wider, arrow-shaped leaflets, held on taller plants are E. x ‘Domino’ and E. x Asiatic Hybrid’  Both are clump forming, with ‘Domino’ being the larger of the two at 16”. They both reveal their affiliation to the barberry family, with their slightly spiny, spear-shaped, semi-evergreen leaflets that hold up well in the garden. In spring ‘Domino’ sports maroon flecking on its leaflets, while Asiatic Hybrid’ leaflets emerge a delicate salmon pink. Both varieties put up a second flush of colored foliage after they bloom. E. x ‘Lilac Cascade’ has caught my eye over many years in the nursery for how well it holds up in the garden over the long, grueling summer season. Each individual plant makes a substantial clump over time, with semi-evergreen heart shaped leaflets.  Lilac flowers and red rimmed spring leaflets that start out in hot pink complete the ensemble. So I hope that this will inspire you to look at your Epimediums at a time other than during their spring show, and appreciate them for their beauty and structure that their foliage provides during other seasons of the year.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Karen Perkins