There are many spring gems to look out for in the garden early in the season and it’s easy to forget what plants you have. Indeed there is nothing nicer than a plant you had forgotten about suddenly emerging from its winter dormancy and bursting through the soil into flower and reminding you that it’s still there.
Epimediums (also known by the charming common names of bishop's hat and horny goat weed) have a trait of doing this as their flowers emerge before the foliage and suddenly push up through the soil. Epimedium × versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ bears small pale lemon flowers that are held on thin, wiry stems that emerge from beneath the bear soil while the plant is still dormant and gradually unfurl.
The flowers are surrounded by ‘spurs’ which give them their distinctive appearance and when grown in a large clump look very effective as they stand about 10cm (4in) tall. As the flowers fade the foliage then emerges from the base of the plant. The leaves are coppery-red when young, with distinct veins running through them, forming a heart shape. Epimediums will hold onto their leaves during the winter - in colder parts of the country this protects the crown of the plant. In very early spring it is well worth cutting the old leaves back to the base with a pair of shears so that you can clearly see the new flowers when they emerge.
Epimedium makes a very effective groundcover plant as it slowly forms a large clump. It is not invasive but the clump is tight knit, so it will smother out surrounding weeds. They generally prefer to be grown in partial shade and are useful in difficult situations such as under a tree canopy, although they prefer a little moisture in the soil and to be mulched with leafmould as growth begins in spring.
At RHS Garden Hyde Hall you can find this valuable spring plant in several areas of the garden including the Robinson Garden where it grows alongside small flowered Narcissus such as ‘Tête à Tête’ and hellebores.
Epimediums are also useful in the Birch Grove where groundcover plants form large clumps under the canopies of birches (Betula utilis ‘Fascination’) with their coppery-white stems. At this time of year plants such as Helleborus foetidus are coming into flower here and they will soon be followed by spring favourites such as columbines and foxgloves.