Although barrenwort may look delicate, it’s anything but fragile. Thriving in low light, barrenwort displays colorful foliage as well as early-spring flowers. This plant makes 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.
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Barrenwort reigns as the rock star of shade gardens, thanks to its multi-season interest. The display starts in spring with foliage emerging in shades of red, gold, and burgundy. The leaves also often feature delicate veining. They mature to a deep green and become thick and leathery, helping them tolerate tough conditions. Along with colorful spring foliage, barrenwort produces dainty flowers in shades of pink, yellow, orange, white, and red. The four-petal blooms are sometimes referred to as fairy wings or bishop's caps.
Barrenwort Care Must-Knows
Barrenwort grows in soil conditions ranging from dry in shade to wet in the wild. When planting this perennial, make sure its woody rhizomatous roots (aka rhizomes) sit just below the soil surface. If planted too deep, the plants may rot or flower late. To divide barrenwort, dig up the plants before they flower in spring. Tease apart the rhizomes, or cut them apart with a sterile sharp knife. Then share the rhizomes with friends and neighbors, or plant them in new areas of your yard. Barrenwort can be divided in fall the same way, but remove 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.
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Although barrenwort tolerates full shade, planting it in part shade results in the brightest colors and greatest number of blossoms. Try to avoid intense late afternoon sun, which is likely to burn the foliage. This is particularly important with evergreen varieties, which are less hardy than deciduous ones.
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. And breeders are developing interesting bicolor blooms for even more interest.
More Varieties of Barrenwort
'Sulphureum' Bicolor Barrenwort
Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' has whitish blooms with a yellow center. Its evergreen foliage grows 8-12 inches tall. Zones 5-9.
Epimedium rubrum foliage is red along the edges and has rosy undertones. Its color intensifies where it receives ample sun before trees leaf out in spring. Zones 4-9.
Barrenwort Companion Plants
Hellebores are so easy and so pretty, they have a place in nearly every landscape. Their exquisite bowl- or saucer-shape 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. They do best in shade where soil remains moist; some prefer acid or alkaline conditions, depending on variety.
Perfect for cottage and woodland gardens, old-fashioned columbines are available in almost all colors of the rainbow. Intricate little flowers, they are most commonly a combination of red, peach, and yellow but also blues, whites, pure yellows, and pinks; they look almost like folded paper lanterns. 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.
One of the longest bloomers in the garden, hardy perennial geranium bears little flowers for months at a time. It produces jewel-tone, saucer-shape flowers, 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.