SOME PLANTS become favorites, not because they blaze forth like azaleas, but because day in and day out they keep a dignity and distinctiveness all their own.
Whenever you hear a gardener go on and on about some creature that doesn't seem all that much to you, it's probably one of these plants that have become favorites, as I say, not for any spectacular quality but because of perfect behavior over the years.
Among plants of this sort are the hellebores, the alchemillas, the wormwoods, the perovskias and the barrenworts or epimediums.
The best-known barrenwort--and may I say that wort is pronounced "wirt," just as worth is pronounced "wirth" and just as world is pronounced "wirld." Not many things unhinge me wart is one of them.
But to get on, the best-known barrenwort is Epimedium pinnatum . My own view is that barrenworts are much of a muchness (as alchemillas are) but with small and pleasant differences. Just as humans are all much the same, yet there are pleasant little differences between male and female, etc.
The only one I grow -- E. pinnatum -- is a grand groundcover, having something of the elegance of a fern, and much of the toughness of a barberry, to which it is related.
It's odd, that once you know epimediums are close to barberries, you see the family likeness, though it would take a better writer than me to define it. t
These epimediums creep about, very moderately, from running roots or underground stems, sending up slender wiry stalks bearing heart-shaped (narrowly heart-shaped) leaves a little bigger than a teaspoon.
To show you how unobservant gardeners are, I had grown this plant a long time before I suddenly noticed the leaves are quite noticeably toothed along the edges. Somehow I had missed feeling the leaf-edges, and if you merely look down on the leavess from a standing position you assume they are smooth, since the teeth are small and do not show, much.
The texture is leathery but thin, somewhat polished or burnished but not really shiny. The stems are maybe a foot high and the leaves, often in clusters of three but this varies too, dispose themselves better than you could think to do it yourself. The effect is luxuriant, as if they were tropical plants, though they grow wild from Central Europe, touching down in North Africa briefly, into Russia, Manchuria and Japan. They are quite hardy and you never have a spring in which you mourn for lost epimediums hid in death's dateless night.
Now these stems springing up from the ground, bearing the leaves, are thickly produced. In the fall -- now -- they are medium green, thinking about turning bronze-red. Some do and and some don't. In deep shady places they stay green, but in more exposed sunny spots (as in an open woodland) they turn bronze, as some mahonias (also members of the barberry family) and andromedas do.
All winter the sit there, neat luxuriant hummocks (the sort of plant they are forever illustrating in books of fairy tales for tots) and if there's a light snow, you see the leaves against that and it is a pretty sight. Assuming the gardener has the leisure to watch for such small effects and the taste for simple pleasures.
Needless to say, if it doesn't snow, the leaves are equally handsome and even fresher at the end of the winter.
There is one period, early March I recal, in which the gallant old leaves look a bit weather-beaten and tired. Squirrels have been chased by dogs through these leaves, postmen have trod on them with their short-cuts, and kids have hunted golfballs and the Lord only knows what else in them.
In March, when, i can remember to do it (which is not every year) I take heavy kitchen shears and cut the old stems off at ground level.
Soon, about late March, new growth begins. As the new leaf-stems appear, the furled leaflets are bronze-colored almost reddish or salmon, a most wonderful subtle color, not very insitent but fairly rich. And among them shoot up (very quickly) soft pliable stems, a bit hairy as I remember, of soft yellow flowers. The primrose airy blooms, not really showy, against the new growth of the leaves, some still bronze and others turning the freshest green, are as pretty as anything in the year.
Though, again, not really snowy.
Along a shady walk up to the front door (for many of us must live in virtual forests) the epimediums are a grand choice. They are elegant and delicate enough to stand the closest inspection. They are monumental enough, in their humble way, to hold their own, visually, with cut stone and box and yew bushes.
They are vigorous enough to resist virtually any weed that might try to invade them.
On the other hand, they do not start racing all over the place like bishopsweed or bugleweed or periwinkle or ivy. If you only wanted a patch of epimediums two feet across, you could count on keeping them in that space for years and years without spending six weekends a month cutting them back.
Apart from soft yellow, they come in tints of lavender, rose, white and a subdued red.
Ideally they are said to lke a mixture of half peat and half loam to grow in. In our usual soils, all you have to do is stick them in.
Often in town gardens you see evergreen azaleas massed against a wall, with a strip of what was supposed to be grass between the azaleas and a walk.
Grass usually refuses to grow in such places (which are usually overhung with some wretched maple) and a good many years go by in which the gardener waves along with more grass seed and outbursts or smolders of ill-temper.
It is always better, in ratty grassy strips, to forget the grass (for in any case it usually forgets to live) and plant something else. Variegated snakebeards or glossy strap-leaved lily-turfs or bugleweeds or pachysandra or periwinkle or ferns (polypodies cannot be faulted) might all be tried and so might the beautiful stinking hellebores.
Or epimediums. The first year (and you acquire them as perennials with living roots) they do not do much and the second year they look all right and the third year they thicken up considerably and the fourth the third year they thicken up considerably and the fourth year (this is what is so wonderful about them, among other things) they don't do much more than the third year. You are not put to the labor of whacking through the jungle, in other words, and when you have planted epimediums you need not worry that you have perhaps introduced monsters that will spread over 18 new acres a year.