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
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
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
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).
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