Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum'
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Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’

Epimediums, or fairy wings, are perennial members of the barberry family which have been popular as early spring-flowering woodland shade perennials since at least the mid-1700s. Being native to Europe and Asia, epimediums were first grown there, before eventually making the pilgrimage to US gardens.

Epimedium popularity today is due to their increasing availability in ornamental nurseries, and the “expansion” of their medicinal use outside their native China, where they are known by the medicinal common name – horny goat weed. Many years ago, an observant farmer noticed his goats becoming exceptionally amorous when grazing in a particular section of pasture. Fast forward to today, epimediums ability to cause increased blood flow in certain male extremities has prompted ground epimedium leaves to be sold today under a number of trade names as a male enhancement product.  This, of course, opens many new opportunities for engaging with your significant other in the woodland.
Many of the early epimedium garden selections were made in Japan, where the focus was on small plants with small flowers because of the space restrictions. These interesting but less showy specimens established in the specialty collector market, but rarely with the general public since they simply didn’t appeal to the petunia and pansy-loving masses. It was only when the larger-flowered species and hybrids began to become available that epimedium began to take off with mainstream gardeners. 
Epimediums come in spreaders and clumpers….the spreaders make superb groundcovers, while the clumping selections are better used as featured specimen plants. Because of the huge need for woodland groundcovers and their faster propagation, the spreading fairy wings quickly became more widely available.
If you’re ready to try your first epimedium, consider Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’, which is now very widespread in cultivation, so it should be easy to find. In fact, Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’  is one of the oldest fair wing hybrids, first documented in photos as early as 1849. Despite being a staggering 165 years old, and even with the plethora of new hybrids, Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’ is still one of the better of the fairy wing hybrids. The only caveat is that much of the stock imported from Europe is horribly virused, so be sure to inquire of your retailer.
No one knows exactly where this showy hybrid originated, but we know it was a human-created hybrid since one parent, Epimedium pinnatum ssp. colchicum hails from Northern Iran and the second parent, Epimedium grandiflorum is native to Japan and Korea. Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’ will quickly form a dense mass of foliage even in fairly dry shade…a superb choice where you need a small, impenetrable woodland groundcover that’s also deer-resistant. The foliage of Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’ is semi-evergreen, meaning it lasts well into the winter before becoming tattered to the point that it looks better mowed or sheared to the ground. We like to have it cut by late February to clear the way for the new flowers.
In early spring, often by mid-March, the bright red, 8” tall flower stalks emerge, topped with light yellow flowers with a darker yellow cup. Within a few more days, the green foliage with dramatic red mottling also emerges, creating a nice foil for the scapes of pale yellow flowers. Flowering time for epimediums depends on the weather…usually lasts at least a month, but early hot spells are the enemy of good flower duration. 
Epimediums are quite easy to grow in the garden, thriving in slightly moist, organic soils. While many epimediums are found growing near water, especially waterfalls, they are surprisingly drought tolerant. Dividing epimediums is easy for the spreading types, but a bit more challenging for the tight clumpers. Separating the plants from late spring to mid-summer has yielded the best results, but year round dividing is possible for experienced gardeners. If you take a fancy to epimediums, you’ll be excited to know that by searching, there are over a hundred different fairy wings commercially available to try, with virtually all thriving in our region.

– Tony Avent

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