How to Plant and Grow Barrenwort

Although barrenwort may look delicate, it is anything but fragile. Thriving in low light, barrenwort (also referred to as bishop's hat, fairy wings, and by its genus name, Epimedium) often displays foliage tipped in shades of burgundy and gold in the spring and sometimes fall. Dainty, columbine-like flowers in a wide range of colors emerge in early spring. This plant makes for a wonderful groundcover in shady areas and tolerates root competition beneath trees and shrubs. Depending on the species, barrenwort can be evergreen or semi-evergreen, which adds winter interest to its list of attributes.

Barrenwort grows via rhizomes—underground stems that send out roots and shoots. Rhizomatous growth is a habit that makes some plants invasive, but barrenwort grows too slowly to be of much concern. In fact, most varieties take 3 to 4 years to reach full maturity, growing and spreading only about 4 to 6 inches each year.

Barrenwort Overview

Genus Name Epimedium
Common Name Barrenwort
Plant Type Perennial
Light Part Sun, Shade
Height 6 to 12 inches
Width 1 to 3 feet
Flower Color Orange, Pink, Red, White, Yellow
Foliage Color Blue/Green, Purple/Burgundy
Season Features Colorful Fall Foliage, Spring Bloom, Winter Interest
Special Features Good for Containers, Low Maintenance
Zones 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Propagation Division, Seed
Problem Solvers Drought Tolerant, Groundcover

Where to Plant Barrenwort

To get the most out of your barrenwort plant, take advantage of its low-light needs and plant it somewhere in your landscape where you have difficulty growing other plants (especially those that bloom). Because barrenwort can thrive in low-light conditions, its a great option for spots in your garden or lawn that are consistently shaded by trees, your house, or other structures. While barrenwort plants can thrive in a wide range of USDA hardiness zones, they don't do well in direct sunlight, so take that into consideration when choosing where to locate your plants.

How and When to Plant Barrenwort

For the greatest chance at success, plant your barrenwort in mid autumn or early spring, before (or after) all danger of frost has passed. Barrenwort plants prefer well-draining, acidic soil that boasts plenty of nutrients. If need be, amend your chosen location with a bit of organic compost before planting and mix in some sand or perlite if it's particularly dense.

Barrenwort’s rhizomatous roots need room to spread, so space your plants approximately 12 and 15 inches away from each other and other plants. When planting this perennial, make sure its woody roots sit just below the soil surface—if planted too deep, the plants may rot or fail to flower.

Barrenwort Care Tips

When it comes to plant care, barrenwort has very few needs—especially when grown in woodland-like conditions. In fact, many consider barrenwort to be a plant that thrives on a bit of neglect. Some effort may be necessary to get barrenwort to bloom, but even that requires little work (and the plant is stunning even without spring flowers).


Barrenwort tolerates full shade, making it a great option for areas of your landscape that won't sustain other plant life. That said, planting it in partial shade results in brighter colors and a greater number of blossoms. Try to avoid placing it in areas with intense late afternoon sun as it can burn the foliage. This is particularly important with evergreen varieties (such as Epimedium grandiflorum 'Rose Queen' or Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum'), which are less hardy than deciduous ones.

Soil and Water

Barrenwort is a great option for dry or rocky soils where other plants may struggle, but it can just as easily thrive in fertile, well-drained soil. If possible, avoid soil that is muddy or doesn't drain well, as barrenwort is prone to rot when grown in soggy conditions.

Barrenwort is considered drought tolerant, but young plants will need consistent watering as they get established. Only water your plant when the top few inches of soil are dry, and make sure that no water remains sitting or pooling around the plant afterward, as it can lead to rot.

Temperature and Humidity

Barrenwort is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8, so it is tolerant of a wide range of temperatures and humidity levels and capable of weathering temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, it will need to spend at least eight weeks in temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit to experience optimal blooming in early spring.


To encourage your barrenwort to bloom, add a light dressing of organic matter to the surrounding soil each spring. Over time, the nutrients will break down and improve the soil structure—much like leaf and plant matter does for barrenwort grown in the woodland wild. Beyond that, the plant does not need to be fed with chemical fertilizer.


Not all types of barrenwort need pruning, but evergreen varieties benefit from being trimmed back early each spring before the blooms or buds appear. Doing this will result in more lush, dense growth and vibrant colors. To prune in this manner, cut the plant back to the ground, leaving about 1 inch of growth on the plant.

Pests and Problems

As mentioned, barrenwort can be prone to rot when grown in soggy conditions, but it suffers very few other problems. Mosaic virus can occasionally be an issue leading to the yellowing of foliage or mottling patterns on the leaves.

Deer and rabbits are likely to avoid barrenwort, but slugs and vine weevils may show up periodically.

How to Propagate Barrenwort

Thanks to its rhizomatous roots, barrenwort is best propagated through division—and since it grows so slowly, propagation may be the best way to fill your landscape with the plant as it gets established. To divide barrenwort, dig up the plants before they flower in spring or in the early fall (August or September). Spring is ideal, but some researchers believe that evergreen barrenwort plants fare better when divided in the fall.

Tease apart the rhizomes, or cut them apart using a sterile sharp knife. The divided plants can then be dispersed through the yard and planted where you please. When you divide barrenwort in the fall, remove only about one-third of the foliage to reduce the stress of supporting top growth while leaving enough foliage to fuel the growth of new roots.

To start barrenwort from seeds, harvest the seeds while they’re still green. Sow them immediately before they dry out. Cover them gently with a bit of soil—don’t bury them deep. Outdoors, the cold winter will stratify the seeds. If you’re growing them in pots indoors, place the seeded pots in the refrigerator for about three months. Outdoors, the plants will germinate in the spring; indoors, they’ll begin to grow after they’re taken out of the refrigerator.

Types of Barrenwort

A relative newcomer to the Western world, barrenwort's latest varieties feature taller flower stalks that emphasize the blooms. Other hybrids feature intriguingly mottled foliage or bicolor blooms.

'Sulphureum' Bicolor Barrenwort

'Sulphureum' bicolor barrenwort
Andy Lyons

Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' has whitish blooms with a yellow center. Its evergreen foliage grows 8-12 inches tall in Zones 5-9.

Red Barrenwort

Red barrenwort
Peter Krumhardt

Epimedium rubrum foliage is red along the edges and has rosy undertones. Its color intensifies where it receives ample sun before trees become lush with leaves in spring. It is hardy in Zones 4-9.

'Rose Queen' Longspur Barrenwort

'Rose Queen' longspur barrenwort
Bob Stefko

Epimedium grandiflorum 'Rose Queen' has the largest flowers of the group at 1¾ inches wide. It grows 1 foot tall in Zones 5-8.

Barrenwort Companion Plants


Richard Hirneisen

Hellebores are so easy and so pretty, they have a place in nearly every landscape. Their exquisite bowl- or saucer-shaped flowers in white (often speckled), pinks, yellows, or maroon remain on the plant for several months, even after the petals have fallen. Deer-resistant and mostly evergreen, hellebores' divided leaves rise on sturdy stems and may be serrated (like a knife) along the edges. Like barrenwort, they do best in the shade where soil remains moist. Depending on the variety, some prefer acid or alkaline conditions.


Columbine Aquilegia varieties
Mike Jensen

Perfect for cottage and woodland gardens, old-fashioned columbines are available in almost all colors of the rainbow. Intricate little flowers, they look almost like folded paper lanterns and are most commonly a combination of red, peach, and yellow but also blues, whites, pure yellows, and pinks. Columbine thrives in sun or partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. Plants tend to be short-lived but self-seed readily, often creating natural hybrids with other nearby columbines. If you want to prevent self-seeding, deadhead plants after bloom.

Perennial Geranium

Geranium Rozanne
Justin Hancock

One of the longest bloomers in the garden, hardy perennial geranium bears little flowers for months at a time. It produces jewel-tone, saucer-shaped blooms, and mounds of handsome, lobed foliage. It needs full sun, but otherwise, it is a tough and reliable plant, thriving in a wide assortment of soils. Many of the best are hybrids. Perennial geraniums may form large colonies.

Garden Plans for Barrenwort

No-Fuss Shade Garden Plan

no-fuss shade garden plan illustration
Illustration by Gary Palmer

You don’t need a lot of sunshine to create this colorful garden bed—which is perfect for filling out a space beneath a large shade tree. This simple-to-care-for garden plan features bright blooms like bleeding hearts and astilbe as well as lush foliage from hostas, Japanese painted ferns, and deadnettle.

Easy-Care Island Flower Bed

island garden bed
Illustration by Mavis Augustine Torke

Break up a boring stretch of landscape with an island garden bed that looks good from any angle. This plan is anchored by an ornamental plum tree and features perennials and groundcovers that add seasonal splashes of color like barrenwort, evening primrose, aster, and bellflower

Drought-Tolerant Slope Garden Plan

Drought-Tolerant Slope Garden illustration
Illustration by Mavis Augustine Torke

This garden plan—perfect for a spot of sloping land—features drought-tolerant perennials such as sedum and hardscape elements (like boulders and stone steps) that make it inviting and accessible. A lush groundcover, creeping thyme, helps slow down water that might otherwise be lost on the incline.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How often should I divide my barrenwort?

    Divide your barrenwort every 3 to 4 years to maintain vigor. Dig the plants up and divide them in early spring before they begin to flower or in early fall (August or September).

  • Can barrenwort be grown in a container?

    Yes! The care steps for growing barrenwort in containers are largely the same as those for growing barrenwort in the ground. Choose a planter with good drainage that is at least 12 inches in diameter and can withstand winter chills without cracking. Use neutral to slightly acidic soil and keep your pot in a shady area (like a covered patio). Water only when the top inch of the soil is dry, add a layer of organic matter in the spring to encourage lush growth. Allow your container-grown barrenwort to go dormant over the winter and (after a few years) if begins to outgrow its pot, follow the procedures for division and separate it into two or more plants in the spring or fall.

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