The Plant Lover’s Guide to Epimediums by Sally Gregson – A Review.  

Epimediums Sally Gregson

We have entered a period of renewed interest in epimediums following the introduction of a range of new species from China and the subsequent richness of cultivars bred from them. For many years gardeners have considered epimediums as the pretty plant for dry shade conditions but the new Chinese plants are simply astonishing and have started a revolution in the horticultural world.

While the author always had an interest in growing these plants she was inspired by visits to Elizabeth Strangman’s Washfield Nursery in Kent and to Robin White’s Blackthorn Nursery in Hampshire where she saw a completely new range of plants which brought Epimediums out of the shadows to become the “showgirls” of the main borders. Nowadays, the selection of plants available is far more interesting and attractive than previously with new flower colours and variety in foliage to make these interesting all-year-round plants.

The author does not aim at providing a comprehensive treatment of the genus but rather presents a selection (123 plants described in detail) of the very best available. This book is one of a series of “Plant Lover’s Guides” commissioned by the publishers, Timber Press. It would appear the authors were guided to pitch the books at a level which would be of interest to the enthusiast yet not daunting to the beginner and they seem to have hit this target very well – I have six of eight titles to hand and find them all commendable.

After the introductions, there is a sizeable chapter on “Designing” with epimediums which covers the practicalities of using them in the garden with details of site, soil conditions, companion plantings and plant suggestions sorted into flower size and foliage interest. The newer Chinese species and their offspring get some extra attention as their requirements are somewhat different to what we have become used to for epimediums. These enjoy rich and improved soil and are front of the border “divas”, as the author describes them.

The main section of the book deals with the listing of 123 epimediums for the garden where for each plant we are given notes on its origins, a full description of flower size and  colour, notes on the foliage, how best to grow it in the garden and, regularly, suggestions of where we might obtain the plants. This section is a delight with the plants beautifully illustrated and the text to the point and perfectly informative which, of course, leads to a “Want-list” of some of the most beautiful plants illustrated: E. illicifolium, introduced in 1998 from China, with white flowers and strikingly large leaves; E. grandiflorum ‘Purple Princess’ has exceptional purple flowers while E. grandiflorum ‘Karin’ has flowers of a delightful red. The cranberry-coloured flowers of E. ‘Kodai Murasaki’ and the purest white flowers of E. sempervirens ‘Okuda White’ stir up an unreasonable desire for possession while the two metre – yes, two metres – flower stems of E. ‘The Giant’ signal that epimediums are now what they used to be and that the future will be very interesting.

Photographing epimediums is something I have always found challenging. The flowers are generally small and demand a close-up shot but this fails to show the foliage and general habit while a general shot of the plant fails to show the beauty of the flowers. From this experience I was delighted with the photography, drawn from a number of contributors.

A section on “Growing and Propagating” continues the practical advice aspect of the book with information on position, soil preference, planting and maintenance as well as notes on growing in pots and containers. While most of us will propagate by division there is fun, and possibly new cultivars, to be had from growing from seed. Pests and diseases, though few, are also treated.

A final section on “People, Places and Plants” was the most enjoyable to read of the entire book ranging from Philip Franz von Siebold’s introductions to the work of William Stearn, Roy Lancaster and Ghent University Botanical Garden along with present and past Japanese and Chinese collectors. I found this section most interesting and also see a very interesting future for epimediums in our gardens and recommend this book to anybody taking an interest in the genus.

Epmediums 2 Sally Gregson

[The Plant Lover’s Guide to Epimediums, Sally Gregson,  Timber Press, London, 2015, HB, 238 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60469-475-8]

P.S. Sally Gregson visited and gave me a beautiful plant of Epimedium wushanense, spiny-leaved form, but I had read the book and had formed my opinion before that! I am waiting to see the 70 – 130cm flower spike and the 30cm long leaves.

Paddy Tobin

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