When and Why to Cut Leaves Off Epimediums and Hellebores

December 30th, 2014 by UWBG Communication Staff
Showy Epimedium 'Lilafee' flowers with fresh new spring leaves.

Showy Epimedium ‘Lilafee’ flowers with fresh new spring leaves.

Busy gardeners appreciate the early spring flowers and minimal care required of evergreen perennials such as epimediums and hellebores. They don’t need dividing or staking or fertilizing, they just do their thing without much gardener intervention. Yet a little attention in late winter will improve the appearance and show off newly emerging flowers.

Roy Farrow, one of the UW Botanic Gardens horticulturists, attends to enormous swaths of epimedium and hellebore in the Washington Park Arboretum’s Witt Winter Garden. When and why does he trim the leaves off? “We attempt to cut down all our Epimedium [foliage] by flowering time – which translates to late winter to make sure we  don’t miss the window. The reason we don’t do it any earlier is either they are good evergreen ground covers or they have particularly colorful foliage in the winter.” Sometimes due to less than ideal cultural conditions, epimedium foliage can look bedraggled by November. The leaves can be cut off then, but that carries risk as well. Roy observes: “[people] love to trample all over areas that have plants about to come up.”

Helleborus x hybridus (H. orientalis) foliage gets cut back earlier in the year at the Arboretum, but some established patches that are particularly hardy rarely receive attention. The main reason to remove foliage is to focus attention on the new flowers emerging from the center of the plant. However, Roy reports, “In some gardens they get botrytis quite badly and look terrible by the end of fall and it’s a good idea to cut down the foliage to keep the inoculum down. Sometimes it’s aphids that drive people to cut down foliage and then flowers later on.” The Winter Jewels series plants have been especially susceptible to disease.

Hellebore x hybridus flowers emerge from the center of the plant and look best with ratty old foliage removed.

Helleborus x hybridus flowers emerge from the center of the plant and look best with ratty old foliage removed.

Hellebore species, such as H. argutifolius and H. foetidus flower on stems that grew the previous year and then decline later in the year. This type of hellebore should be left alone in winter.

April 2010 Plant Profile: Epimedium

April 1st, 2010 by Soest Gardener, Riz Reyes

It has taken me almost three years to get the chance to feature one of my most favorite of all blooming shade perennials and with a wide assortment of them beginning to hit their peak, I will discuss the entire genus. Known as” Barrenwort” to some, “Fairy Wings” to others and “Horny Goat Weed” to herbalist, I am talking about the enchanting Epimedium.

“Eppies”, as I often call them amongst fellow plant geeks, have long been known as a tried-and-true perennial for dry shade. Typically planted under trees in a woodland setting, we have a wide assortment of various species and selected cultivars that thrive in various conditions just to demonstrate how adaptive they can really be in many landscape settings here in the Pacific Northwest. With many recent introductions from China finding their way into the market, many unusual forms and hybrids are beginning to turn up.

Within the Soest Garden, we have about 10 different species and named cultivars on display. Most of them are evergreen and reside underneath a large red oak tree and a handful are deciduous that have evident buds ready to spring into full bloom in the month of April.

Every landscape deserves an Epimedium. You really can’t ask for a more elegant, tough and reliable perennial.

  • Common Name: Barrenwort, Fairy Wings
  • Location: Soest Garden Beds 2, 6, 7 and the dry shade bed under the large red oak. Two species in the Fragrance Garden (thought no Epimedium is fragrant, unfortunately)
  • Family: Berberidaceae
  • Origin: Asian and Eastern European species and some of garden origin
  • Height: 6-12″
  • Spread: Can form tight clumps after several years
  • Bloom Time: Usually mid-late March onto April and sometimes into May.
  • Bloom Type/Color: Various
  • Exposure: Part-Full Shade
  • Water/Soil: Well drained, moderately moist. Asian species and their hybrids tend to prefer more water.