Epimedium: how to plant & care for bishop’s hat


I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

The shade loving epimedium plant – also known as horny goat weed, fairy wings, bishop’s hat or barrenwort – is ideal for underplanting and as a ground cover. Discover the most beautiful epimedium varieties, as well as how to plant and care for them.

Bishop’s hat plant with pink flowers
Fairy wings are pretty, flowering perennials for shady areas [Photo: High Mountain/ Shutterstock.com]

Bishop’s hat (Epimedium) is one of the best-known shade plants. Here we will introduce you to the most beautiful plant varieties along with valuable tips on how to plant and care for your bishop’s hat.

Epimedium: flower, origin and characteristics

Bishop’s hat plants (Epimedium), belong to the barberry family (Berberidaceae). There are somewhere in the region of 60 varieties and natural hybrids, which can be found in Asia, Africa, and Europe in the northern hemisphere. The deciduous or evergreen perennials survive the winter with the help of their runner-forming roots. Bishop’s hat plants reach a growth height of between 15 and 40cm and come in all sorts of shapes. The leaves can be ovate, cordate, lanceolate, elongated or nearly round in shape. The leaf edge can be toothed or slightly spiny. The early shoots in spring are beautifully colourful; often bronze or reddish coloured, and in autumn the foliage ranges from Bordeaux reddish green to violet-red. You can expect your bishop’s hat plants to come into bloom from April, sometimes before or during leaf emergence. The flowers are made up of four inner petals and four outer petals and may also form elongated horn-shapes, depending on the variety. After pollination, seed capsules form, inside of which are numerous seeds, each with a very striking seed shell. Ants enjoy feeding on those nutritious shells, helping to spread the epimedium seeds in the process.

Is bishop’s hat bee friendly? Bishop’s hat plants are one of the best perennials for bees. Smaller wild bees in particular take advantage of the nectar and pollen offered by the often quite dainty flowers, whilst honeybees are more drawn to the larger flowered varieties, such as Epimedium versicolor.

Red and pink fairy wings flowers
The flowers of the alpine and the red epimedium are very similar [Photo: mizy/ Shutterstock.com]

The most beautiful varieties of epimedium plant

Bishop’s hat comes in many different varieties, which differ in growth, flower size and colouration. Here we will introduce you to our top 10 favourite epimedium plants.

  • Epimedium alpinum: This alpine barrenwort flower from southeast Europe has deciduous foliage and can grow to a height of up to 40cm. This wide spreading wild variety forms graceful panicles with up to 25 red, yellow-coloured single flowers.
  • Epimedium grandiflorum: This large flowered epimedium originates from Japan and is a bushy evergreen that can grow up to 25cm. The plant has beautifully long-spurred, large orchid-like flowers. The ‘Lilafee’ barrenwort, or ‘Lilac Fairy’, has bronze-coloured shoots and blooms with delicate purple flowers in April.
  • Epimedium pauciflorum: This variety has very few flowers and grows close to the ground reaching just 15-20cm in height. It is very popular as a ground cover as its short roots create a wonderfully dense evergreen carpet. This variety blooms with delicate pale pink to creamy white flowers.
  • Epimedium x perralchicum: One of the hybrid epimedium varieties. It is almost exclusively evergreen, offers dense coverage and is ideal as ground covering foliage, growing up to 30cm in height. This is the most well-known of all the epimedium plants. In autumn the leaves turn a pretty red colour while the leaf veins remain light green. The hybrid epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’ produces delicate yellow flowers.
Dense foliage and delicate yellow flowers of ‘frohnleiten’ epimedium
This hybrid epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’ is perfect for ground cover [Photo: R. Knapp/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Epimedium pinnatum subsp. colchicum ‘Black sea’: This barrenwort displays vigorous growth and has almost evergreen leaves. Its delicate, light yellow flowers start to appear from April. The leaves of the ‘Black Sea’ variety turn dark purple in autumn and winter. It is ideal for use over a wide area, especially under trees and shrubs.
  • Epimedium pubigerum: An almost light and fluffy looking variety with coarse, winter green foliage and delightfully delicate, short-spurred, light yellow flowers. The epimedium pubigerum can grow up to 25cm in height and is therefore ideal as ground cover.
  • Epimedium x rubrum: Red barrenwort, cultivated from a cross between epimedium alpinum and epimedium grandiflorum. The epimedium rubrum is a woody, deciduous plant with rich reddish-brown leaves and two-tone red and white flowers. The ‘Galadriel’ variety has particularly dense blooms and makes an excellent ground cover.
Bold red and green bishop’s hat plant foliage
Many species of bishop’s hat, like Epimedium versicolor here, display red-green leaves [Photo: J Need/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Epimedium versicolor ‘Sulphureum’: Sometimes called bicolour barrenwort, can reach up to 35cm and has a particularly vigorous and wide-spreading growth. The sulphur yellow flowers of this epimedium versicolor appear from April to May and turn a glorious bronze colour in autumn.
  • Epimedium x warleyense: This deciduous hybrid epimedium grows up to 30cm tall forms strong runners, providing excellent ground-coverage. Epimedium ‘Orange Queen’ produces myriad soft orange-red flowers.
  • Epimedium x youngianum: A short, deciduous hybrid of Epimedium grandiflorum crossed with Epimedium diphyllum, growing to somewhere between 15 and 20cm high. Epimedium x youngianum ‘Niveum’ is a wonderfully elegant alternative for underplanting with its exquisite, spurless white flowers.
Delicate orange blossoms of epimedium orange queen variety
The hybrid barrenwort ‘Orange Queen’ forms delicate orange flowers [Photo: Andrew Fletcher/ Shutterstock.com]

Bishop’s hat plants for ground cover: the following epimedium varieties are best suited for ground cover: Epimedium pauciflorum, Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’, Epimedium pinnatum ssp. colchicum and Epimedium x warleyense.

Epimedium: when, where and how to plant

Epimedium is a wonderfully adaptable perennial for any semi-shady to shady locations. Note: locations that are too bright may put the plant at risk through winter in the event of late frosts, and locations that are too dark will result in fewer flowers. The ideal location for an epimedium plant is in fresh, loose, low chalk, slightly acidic, humus-rich soil. Soils that are too heavy or sandy can be enriched with the help of our high-quality Plantura Organic Flower Compost. Additionally, adding clay powder will help to increase the water storage capacity of the soil.

As a rule, plant your epimedium either in late autumn, between October and the end of November before the first frosts come, or in early spring from the beginning of March. They grow well under trees and shrubs or in shaded beds. We recommend planting epimedium in small groups of three to ten plants, ideally about 30 to 40cm apart. For ground cover, you will need roughly 15 to 17 plants per square metre. Ensure that the depth of the soil you dig is at least the same height as the pot you are removing it from. Over the course of the next few years, you will see the runners of the more vigorous varieties become well established in their new environment. You can expect the barrenwort flowers to come into bloom in the first spring after planting.

Organic Flower Compost, 40L
Organic Flower Compost, 40L
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Epimedium care: pruning, watering and fertilising

You do not necessarily have to prune your bishop’s hat, however by removing old dead foliage after the winter – ideally do this in March – you will ensure that any new shoots have room to grow.

Epimedium is a low-maintenance perennial that requires little attention after planting. A layer of mulch between freshly planted perennials will protect them from drought and heat. We highly recommend watering the more sensitive varieties from Asia, such as E. grandiflorum and E. pubescens, regularly during the warmer, drier seasons. Southern species, such as E. perralchicum and E. pinnatum, are hardier, so tolerate heat and drought well.

Purple bishop’s hat flowers
Fertilising as required results in beautiful flowers [Photo: Kirsanov Valeriy Vladimirovich/ Shutterstock.com]

Apply fertiliser as needed annually in the spring. Do this by scattering a natural slow-release fertiliser, such as our Plantura Flower Food, loosely around the base of your epimedium. For optimal fertilisation, do this at the beginning of March when the soil is frost-free. To ensure a swift release of nutrients, water well straight after application.

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Flower Food, 1.5kg
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Propagating epimedium

The simplest method of propagation for your barrenwort plant is to divide existing root clumps. In late spring after flowering, dig up the epimedium roots with the help of a spade, divide the clump and replant in the desired area.

Alternatively, you can take rhizome cuttings of your bishop’s hat. To do this, dig up one of your plants and, with a sharp knife, take cuttings of the rhizome (the sturdy section of plant stem which remains underground) into sections about 5cm long. Then place the rhizome pieces horizontally into nutrient-poor growing soil and cover with about 1-2cm of soil. Over the course of the following 2-3 weeks, allow the cuttings to take root. Place the cuttings in a bright, cool location and keep the soil moist, but not wet. If the right conditions are met, you will soon see the first shoots and leaves grow. Once you have sturdy epimedium seedlings, repot or plant them as required.

Large epimedium plant in garden
Give your bishop’s hat protection in winter with a layer of leaves for example [Photo: Eileen Kumpf/ Shutterstock.com]


In our European climate the common bishop’s hat varieties can survive the winter. Freshly planted and deciduous barrenwort require light winter protection – we recommend putting a thick layer of leaves around the plant in harsh locations. The rhizomes grow just below the soil surface, so an extra layer of protection helps prevent damage in severe sub-zero temperatures.

Are epimedium plants poisonous?

Bishop’s hat is considered to be mildly poisonous. However, there are countries in which some parts of the plant are cooked to make them edible. In folk medicine, extracts of epimedium grandiflorum were used to help treat certain cancers.

Tip: Both the Epimedium macun and Epimedium brevicornum varieties are used to treat thyroid problems, high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction in traditional Chinese and herbal medicine.

Ground cover plants are suitable for use in many gardens as underplanting or to add a touch of greenery to beds. We also have many more bee-friendly ground cover suggestions for you that are suitable for any location.

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