Cleve West: All hail the Horny Goat

Urban Gardener
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I don't think I've ever got over the crush I had on an epimedium some 20 years ago. It was one of several treasures growing in my great aunt's rockery that would unwittingly hook me into horticulture. But it wasn't love at first sight. When I first saw the spider-like sprays of flowers emerging from a stubble of wizened foliage I thought the plant sick, and that the anorexic display was a last-gasp farewell to a cruel world. When the leaves appeared I thought it stupid, doing everything back to front (even showing autumn colours in spring), but was suitably impressed when the reddish hues returned at the end of the season. Today, while a little more effort is needed to bend down to its level and get acquainted, it still holds the same fascination and, despite its woodland associations, is a useful ally in the urban scene.

A member of the Berberidaceae tribe, this east-Asian native is commonly known as Barrenwort or Horny Goat Weed. Ancient lore suggests that the plant can cure impotence and even today E. brevicornum is being specifically targeted as a potential Viagra replacement so Google the plant at your peril. The inverted crown shape of the flowers has also earnt it the name Bishop's Hat but I see spaceships not mitres, especially on those with pronounced spurs. Each one is a Rebel Alliance X-Wing and I imagine that George Lucas would almost certainly have had several stems of them in his lapel to fine-tune the choreography for the battle scenes in Star Wars.

Epimedium earns respect in the garden as refined ground cover beneath trees and large shrubs. If there are gaps in a Chelsea show garden, a tray of epimedium won't be far away. Spring foliage is soft and the loose sprays of flowers bring a light and sophisticated touch to urban backyards. The lopsided heart or shield-shaped foliage attached to filigree stems is either deciduous or evergreen, the latter being more effective at suppressing autumn weeds. Evergreen varieties, while holding their foliage for much of the year, still produce fresh leaves come spring, E. x perralchicum 'Frohnleiten' being a reliable sort with vibrant yellow flowers, its young leaves bronzy-pink, turning glossy green before reverting to warmer hues again come autumn. Flowers have evolved into all sorts of delicate configurations to attract insects, one of the most beautiful being E. stellulatum 'Wudang Star' (a much better name for a spaceship) discovered by Roy Lancaster in 1983.

Deciduous varieties such as E. grandiflorum 'Rose Queen' and 'Lilafee' (pink and light purple flowers respectively) are deservedly popular for their larger blooms while E. x youngianum provides a more delicate touch with exquisite white flowers. E. x rubrum with smaller red flowers and white spurs give it a cheekiness that makes it stand out. Most epimediums prefer light shade and soil that doesn't dry out, however the semi-evergreen, E. x versicolor 'Sulphureum' is tolerant of dry shade, making it a popular choice under thick tree canopies and for urbanites with testing conditions.

Epimediums collectors happily grow them in containers where they can be showcased and admired up close. Care though must be taken not to let the plants dry out if planted in a pot.

Spreading slowly by shallow rhizomes, epimedium associates well with other foliage plants such as hostas and ferns. Sedges and grasses such as luzula and deschampsia offer a less disciplined contrast while, in larger gardens, rogersias and veratrums benefit from the epimedium's modest foil. Easily propagated by division in spring or early autumn, epimedium should be planted in compost-enriched soil with a mulch of leaf-mould then watered regularly until established. Rejuvenating existing clumps every four years or so will help keep them in good condition; dried stems that help protect the plant during winter can be removed just before spring to stop spent or lacklustre foliage from spoiling the effect of emerging flowers and leaves.

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