University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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PERENNIAL PLANT FEATURE: FAIRY WINGS

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
 
The common name of "barrenwort" really doesn't do justice to this group of shade perennials, also known as “fairy wings”.  Unknown by many gardeners, and underutilized by most others, there are many worthy and hardy selections that have been introduced recently. 

In previous times, this genus of perennials (Epimedium) was believed to cause "barrenness" in women, hence its common name.  In more recent times, this genus has been studied for its potential use with problems of the human heart, kidneys, and bones.   Another name that you may see is "bishop's cap" or "bishop's mitre", because of the shape of the flowers, although this also could refer to the native perennial miterwort (Mitella diphylla).

The common name of “Fairy Wings” also refers to the flower shape. They are generally only a half inch or less across, attached in dainty small clusters on nodding flower stems. These herbaceous perennial members of the barberry family have a wider range of flower colors than other of their relatives.  The spring blooms come in white, yellow, rose, crimson, violet, or bicolor combinations of these on the same flower. 

Fairy wings are low, generally under a foot high.  Depending on selection, they either form dense mounds or gently spreading groundcovers from underground woody stems (rhizomes).  The leaves are shaped like hearts or arrowheads, sometimes with points or serrations along the edges.  They are held on the thin but stiff, wiry stems to form dense mats above the ground.  Once again, depending on selection, they may emerge before or after the flowers, or sometimes partially hide the flowers.

Some species have deciduous leaves (losing them in winter), others are evergreen.  Generally the deciduous species will be hardier in colder regions.  Even in areas where evergreen species survive, their foliage may look unsightly after winter.  Prune back any such leaves in early spring, prior to flowers emerging.

Leaves of some fairy wings also may emerge red or burgundy in the spring, then turn yellow or red in the fall.  This is due to the red pigments (anthocyanins) which appear with cooler temperatures, and higher light.  In the spring, and again in the fall, when there are few or no leaves on the trees, more light can reach these plants and so cause such coloration.

Native to shady areas of rich moist woodlands or moist rock outcroppings, members of this genus prefer low fertility, and a slightly acidic (pH 6.2 to 6.8 is good), and moist loam.  Yet one of the beauties of this group is that many are quite tolerant of drought, once established.  They’ll tolerate full shade, but prefer part shade (four to six hours of sun daily).

Their only main problems may be chewing from rabbits, generally only early in the season on tender leaves, and chewing from insects, generally later in the season as the leaves decline.  Neither problem seems to cause lasting harm to established plants. Usually they are resistant to deer feeding.

If you need or want to divide them, the spreading types are easiest to reestablish.  Division is best done right after flowering, leaving at least two-thirds of the foliage on divisions to help roots get established more quickly. 

Many new species, cultivated selections (cultivars), and hybrids have been introduced, partly as a result of the work and explorations of Garden Visions nursery in Phillipston, Massachusetts.  They have introduced many new species to world commerce from the wilds of China, and have more to name and introduce. 

Yet fairy wings have been bred for over 150 years in Europe, and longer in Japan, to give the many cultivars and even hybrids among species which we are currently coming to know in this country. Until the 1990’s, there were only 21 species known, and less than half of these were in commerce.  These represent less than half of the species now available through nurseries, some with many cultivars and hybrids among them.

While most of this genus originated in China, most species available to gardeners came from elsewhere.    Some originally came from Europe, the Caucasus mountains, and northern Turkey (alpinum, pubigerum).  Others came from the Far East, to include Korea, Japan, and eastern Russia (diphyllum, grandiflorum, sempervirens).  Another species came from northern Africa (pinnatum).

Cold hardiness is the main limiting factor for wider use of this genus in northern gardens; however, an increasing number are proving hardy to at least USDA zone 4 (most of Vermont for instance).  Three selections in particular have proven hardy for me over some years now in zone 4--a hybrid (versicolor) and its cultivar 'Versicolor', and the cultivar 'Roseum' of another hybrid (youngianum).  There are several other species and their variations listed as hardy to USDA zone 4, and perhaps to colder areas, with white to purple flowers (grandiflorum), yellow flowers (koreanum),  or red to pink flowers with red margins on new leaves (x rubrum).

In a trial of 40 selections over several years at the Chicago Botanic Garden (hardiness zone 5), the top three for hardiness and overall performance were the cultivars 'Crimson', 'Sonoyzki', and 'Neosulphureum'.  More on these results can be found on trial manager Richard Hawke’s Plant Evaluation Program website (www.chicagobotanic.org/research/staff/hawke), and more on the genus overall is on the Garden Visions nursery website (www.epimediums.com).

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