Northern Shade Gardening

Epimedium Fall Colour

Monday, October 18, 2010 Category: Perennials
Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (lilac fairy barrenwort) red leaf colour in fall

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (lilac fairy barrenwort) red leaf colour in fall

Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’ (Lilac Fairy barrenwort or bishop’s hat) has green leaves shaped like asymmetrical hearts and pretty purple flowers. However the foliage is especially nice in the Spring and Fall, when they are etched with red. Right now, they are developing their fall colour of red patterns along the leaf veins. The eye-catching foliage looks particularly attractive as it changes, adding a little more colour to the shade garden. These pictures are all from October, except for the flower photo.

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' lilac fairy flowers in May

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' lilac fairy flowers in May

The photo above shows the flowers from last spring. ‘Lilafee’ has a little extra pizazz then, when the new leaves have red bands all around the edges, although the photo above doesn’t highlight the red border. The edging emphasizes the asymmetrical heart shape to the leaves and makes them stand out. The flowers will start to bloom while the new foliage is still small, in mid to late spring. In my zone 3 garden, they are in flower for about a month, from the middle of May to the middle of June. They are the fourth perennial to start blooming in my spring garden, right after the Helleborus, Brunnera (Siberian bugloss) and Pulmonaria (lungwort). ‘Lilafee’ has purple blooms, a little larger than regular Epimedium. The flowers are held above the foliage, so they can be enjoyed without searching. The buds are a darker purple. Then as they unfold, the long spurs have white tips.

This cultivar ‘Lilafee’ is sometimes sold as ‘Lilac Fairy’, and you can see the dancing fairy effect in the picture above. If you are a marketer, it is  not enough to have a great little plant, you have to have a catchy name, too.

Gradually the red bands disappear, and the flowers fade by summer. These dependable perennials provide a healthy green edge for a summer flower border. However, they don’t grab your attention in the summertime, since the green is not as noticeable. They are a nice setting for other leaves and flowers, though.

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (lilac fairy barrenwort) fall colour leaf closeup

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (lilac fairy barrenwort) fall colour leaf closeup

Then in Fall, the plain  green leaves start colouring along the veins, developing pronounced red lines. They become a focus again, as other perennials fade out.  After the  transformation, the bolder colouring catches your eye. These Epimedium grandiflorum are planted next to some Cornus canadensis, which have a dramatic Fall change to purplish red. The two perennials make for a more lively October garden.

Epimedium are very low maintenance plants. They form a good groundcover, as you can see below,  so there is not much weeding to do. These plants can handle a fair amount of dryness, so you don’t have to water frequently. Epimediums don’t mind a site underneath the tall conifers, which other perennials might object to. Plus, they are easy to fit into shady garden nooks. Some of mine only get an hour or so a day of light, and they do fine. Although they are easy care, they are not annoying or invasive like some shade groundcovers can be. They grow to the edge of the surrounding perennials, but don’t bother them. They are about 30 cm (1 foot) tall, so you can use them for underplanting, too. Then the Fall colour is an extra bonus.

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (lilac fairy barrenwort) athyrium ghost brunnera jack frost

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (lilac fairy barrenwort) athyrium ghost brunnera jack frost

In the photo above, the Epimedium grandiflorum are backed up by the finely cut fronds of two Athyrium ‘Ghost’ (ghost ferns) and bordered on the left by the heart shaped leaves of a Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. In the back garden, I have them next to some Athyrium niponicum (painted ferns) and in front of some Dicentra ‘Alba’ (white bleeding hearts.)

The Epimedium grandiflorum have semi evergreen leaves, so they are another great plant for a short growing season. They remain green and patterned up until snowfall. After the snow melts in spring, they lose their old leaves, and grow new ones. These semi-evergreen perennials extend a short gardening season to make both late Fall and early Spring more interesting in the garden. You can see more spring photos and read more information about this Epimedium in this earlier article.

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (lilac fairy barrenwort) fall colour

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' (lilac fairy barrenwort) fall colour

If you are looking for a low maintenance  shade groundcover, with pretty flowers and nice Fall colours, Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’ is a good choice.

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' lilac fairy closeup of fall leaf

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilafee' lilac fairy closeup of fall leaf

22 Responses to “Epimedium Fall Colour” »

  1. The Garden Ms. S :
    October 18, 2010 at 10:52 am

    I really like the subtle beauty of this, Northern Shade. I think groundcover plants deserve much more appreciation — especially one as low maintenance and hard working as this. Very nice! :)

  2. Northern Shade :
    October 18, 2010 at 11:51 am

    The Garden Ms. S, it is very low maintenance, grows well under the evergreens and looks good all season.

  3. Shady Gardener :
    October 18, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Hi Northern Friend! This is the first full season of my lilofee. Mine is not yet showing any color (besides a healthy green!). Where’s the justice? ha. You ARE way north of me, though. I’m sure that makes a big difference. (You should see the leaves in my backyard…)

  4. Northern Shade :
    October 18, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Shady Gardener, enjoy your warm weather. Most perennials here have either folded it in, or are showing their Fall colours. It is nice to have some with evergreen leaves or with pretty Autumn changes, so the garden doesn’t look bare.

  5. Corner Garden Sue :
    October 18, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    I like your plant combinations. They look like they get on well together, sharing the space nicely, too.

  6. Northern Shade :
    October 18, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Corner Garden Sue, I like the feathery fern texture with the more solid Brunnera and Epimedium. These are a little protected under the evergreen boughs and near the house, so the Brunnera and fern have kept all of their leaves through the first frosts, but the Epimedium will outlast both of them when the colder weather comes.

  7. Sweetbay :
    October 18, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Epimediums are plants I *have* to try. The foliage is so nice and the flowers enchanting.

  8. Northern Shade :
    October 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Sweetbay, they’re nice little plants for edging in a shady area. They are especially showy in Spring when they bloom and in Fall when their leaves persist as other perennials disappear.

  9. Marit :
    October 19, 2010 at 3:10 am

    Epimedium is a beautiful perennial. I love ‘Lilafee’ because of the colour. I have it in my garden, and I am very fond of the foliage too.
    Your plant portraits are great!

  10. Northern Shade :
    October 19, 2010 at 7:09 am

    Marit, in my back garden, I have it planted in front of some Dicentra (bleeding hearts) and the purple flowers overlap the blooming time of the the pretty white hearts.

  11. debsgarden :
    October 19, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I planted several epimediums, to see how they would grow in my climate. They hung on, barely, the first summer. But this year they began to prosper. I love the leaves and the delicate spring blooms. I hope my plants will spread like yours!

  12. Northern Shade :
    October 19, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Debsgarden, mine were healthy, but fairly small for the first season. However the ones in their third season have formed a lovely groundcover, without invading their neighbour’s space.

  13. Kathleen :
    October 20, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Oh what a gorgeous Epimedium. I have ‘rubrum’ and that’s my only one. I’m going out now tho to look at its leaves and see if anything is changing. I’ve sort of overlooked it all summer. This post is a great reminder that plants are interesting all seasons, not just when they’re blooming!

  14. Northern Shade :
    October 20, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Kathleen, some shade perennials, like Hosta, have disappeared entirely now, so it’s nice to have the decorative Epimedium leaves lasting through the Fall. This section of the garden has a lot of Asarum, Heuchera and Tiarella, so it still looks fresh.

  15. Gail :
    October 20, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I have this one and think it’s stellar~I will watch for the red veining. gail

  16. Northern Shade :
    October 20, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Gail, I like the colouring in Spring, too, when the new leaves have a red rim around them, as it makes them stand out a little more.

  17. Rose :
    October 22, 2010 at 7:16 am

    Thanks for introducing me to this groundcover! The red tinges on the leaves in the fall are really attractive. This sounds like the perfect solution for me under a tall spruce where nothing much wants to grow.

  18. Northern Shade :
    October 22, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Rose, they have been growing well for me under the spruce and pine. I also have some in my backyard on the side that faces East and gets some morning sun, and then dappled willow shade. The plants don’t seem to be bothered by anything.

  19. patty :
    October 22, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    I am a fan of the epimedium too. I grow the red and yellow flowering varieties. They do really well in my dry shade garden, but are being hassled by the rabbits this year.

  20. Northern Shade :
    October 22, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Patty, it sounds like you don’t have enough carrots in your garden. ;) I’ve been fortunate, and nothing has been bothering the Epimedium. They have been very easy care.

  21. Cheryl :
    July 29, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Dear Northern Shade, I haven’t the words to describe my thrill with your site – photos and info. I live in the Chicago area. Have had a problem area in the garden – what to put under a large river birch (which isn’t by a river or any other water source!); in fact it can get and remain very dry under it. So there is shade and dryness. Epimedium sounds like a real solution for those 2 points, not to mention its loveliness, – something sorely missing under and around this tree. I’ve been going through my mind and books trying to find a groundcover that would meet the need. My sister mentioned this plant name to me a few weeks ago. Today I came across piece of paper where I had written it down. So so glad I went online, and found your site. The plant is so pretty I wouldn’t even mind watering it some if it were to be dry for an extended period of time.
    I know there is some scilla under the tree which comes up in early spring, flowers, and then dies back completely by late spring. That shouldn’t pose a problem, do you think?
    Thank you so much.

  22. Northern Shade :
    July 29, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Cheryl, it really helps to see photos of the perennials in someone’s garden, to see how they look outside of their pots and with other plants. Epimedium make a nice groundcover under trees, and those pretty flowers in the spring brighten up the shade. I have another group of these Epimedium under some conifers in my front garden, and they get some supplemental water there, but seem to do well anyways.

    I don’t think there would be any problem with the Scilla. I have Scilla interplanted with other perennials, and it works very well, since the perennials come up after the bulbs have flowered to hide the decaying bulb foliage. I have some Puschkinia (striped squill) bulbs, that are related to Scilla, planted around this group of Epimedium to share the space and extend the flowering time.

    Some other perennials that might work for your site are Aruncus aethusifolius (dwarf goatsbeard). They have neat mounds of feathery foliage about the same height as the Epimedium, and get short white flower plumes in early summer. A really nice short groundcover with thick, shiny, heart shaped leaves is Asarum europaeum (European ginger). They handle shade very well, and don’t need much water.

Leave a Reply