Non-Spiky Members of the Berberis Family for the Woodland Garden

Nigel Rowland, from Long Acre Plants in Somerset, offers a selection of herbaceous relatives of Berberis suitable for shade. - 02 April 2024

Berberidaceae is a family largely from the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. It is thought to have evolved in Eastern Asia and spread to Europe and North America, and is a family of between 14 and 18 genera and 700 species, the majority of which are woody species of Berberis and Mahonia.

But for the woodland and shade gardener the family does include some exciting herbaceous genera, notably Epimedium, Vancouveria, Podophyllum, Jeffersonia, Achlys, and Caulophyllum.  The whole family, but particularly the genera mentioned as garden worthy, are important in traditional medicine.  Epimedium and Podophyllum are widely used in Chinese medicine, as are the North American genera in traditional First Nations medicines. Many years ago I vividly remember an NHS Consultant Oncologist visiting the nursery to buy garden plants and saying in passing that she used the Podophyllum hexandrum in front of us as an anti-cancer drug.

Epimedium can roughly be divided into two garden growing groups :

Those of the woods of eastern Europe, Turkey and the Caucasus, with an outlier in North Africa. These include many of the commonly grown “dry shade tolerant “ species.

For the second group,  the main diversity of species is in  China, with  further species in Japan, Korea, Eastern Russia and Northern India (Kashmir). These are what one would largely call monsoon plants in that they prefer a moistish summer and drier winter and away from the damper West  of the country are best grown in a north wall bed rather than under a heavy canopy transpiring the ground moisture away. A tall open oak canopy is also good. These species and hybrids are some of the most garden-worthy plants for the woodland garden. Epimedium in North America is replaced by Vancouveria.

European species and their hybrids that are suitable for a spot that is drier in summer include 4 species:  Epimedium alpinum E. pinnatum,  E. pubigerum and E. perraldianum, together with their hybrids E. x cantabrigenseE. x versicolorE. x warleyense and E. x rubrum. Epimedium x versicolor ‘Cherry Pie’ is a good, red-flowered, almost evergreen form which is easy in dry deciduous shade. Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' has been largely superseded by a very good new hybrid E. ‘Totnes Turbo’ raised by Julian Sutton of Desirable Plants.  It is bigger and better in all ways, the flowers are the same pale sulphur yellow. Julian has also named a number of other fine forms and are worth seeking out. Epimedium pinnatum Elegans is evergreen with bright yellow flowers in Spring.


Epimedium 'Totnes Turbo'

Eastern Asian species number over 60 and the hybrids and cultivars run into the hundreds. Some are, shall we say, of no more than “botanical interest” but they do include some exceptional ornamental species, hybrids and cultivars. There are too many to give more than a taster here.  Lovely, large-flowered pink species include E. brachyrrhizum which is up to 40cm tall.


Epimedium brachyrrhizum

Shorter and with longer rhizomes is E.  leptorrhizum, and the taller-growing E. fargesii ‘Pink Constellation’ is a particular favourite .


Epimedium fargesii ‘Pink Constellation’ 

A number of pink-flowered hybrids are available:  ‘Pink Champagne’ and ‘Marchants Twin Set’ are particular favourites.


Epimedium 'Pink Champagne'

Red-flowered clones include some E. grandiflora forms such as ‘Wildside Red’ and ‘Queen Esta’. Hybrids include the relatively new, extraordinary  ‘Red Maximum’. Maybe my favourite  raised by Robin White of the now closed Blackthorn Nursery is E. ‘William Stearn’ tall growing with masses of red flowers, but it hates being too wet in winter and too dry in Summer so maybe one for a big pot.

Purple-flowered species include almost the first collection of the “exotic” Chinese species by Roy Lancaster, E.  acuminatum L575 on one of his early Chinese expeditions. Purple-flowered hybrids are many, but E. ‘Pheonix’ I particularly love.


Epimedium 'Phoenix'

White-flowered species of note include E. epsteinii, E. latisepalum and E. ogisui, and some fine hybrids and cultivars  include another Robin White selection, E. ‘Egret’ which is large-flowered and flowers over several months in Spring. E. stellulatum ‘Wudang Star’, another Roy Lancaster collection, has smaller flowers but they are produced in masses.


E. stellulatum ‘Wudang Star’

Yellow-flowered species are not always the most popular, but E. davidii is very good, particularly the Martin Rix collection (EMR 4125) from Sichuan, China.


Epimedium davidii

E. chlorandrum and  E. franchetii  are more of a sulphur-yellow and forms often have bright red new foliage; E. franchetii ‘Brimstone Butterfly’ is a treasure.  The tallest-growing of all with me is what I know as E. wushanense and is quite an exceptional plant. Hybrids include  the vigorous and easy E. ‘Amber Queen’ and the short-spurred but free flowering E. ‘Lemon Zest’.


Epimedium 'Amber Queen'

Podophyllum have now been put back into a single genus by Plant Finder so I will treat them as such here. They stretch from the easy and adaptable Podopyllum peltatum with white flowers from North America and the Himalayan pink-flowered Podophyllum hexandrum,  to the exotic Chinese red flowered species such as Podophyllum versipelle and P. pleianthemum.


Podophyllum peltatum

Maybe the best one to start with would be the hybrid P.  ‘Spotty Dotty’ which has dark red flowers and highly mottled exotic looking leaves, to 60cm plus tall . An RHS trial of Podophyllum is under consideration for next year onwards at Rosemoor Gardens and would be warmly welcomed.


Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty'

Jeffersonia, as one might imagine, was named for the former American President. It is said that Thomas Jefferson grew Jeffersonia diphylla in his garden at Monticello.  The white-flowered J. diphylla is easy to grow and associates well in the woodland garden with snowdrops, hellebores, primulas, Erythronium, Uvularia,  Polygonatum, ferns and Epimedium (as above). There is a Japanese species, J. dubia, which is very different, with almost perfoliate leaves, unlike the bi-winged J. diphylla leaves and has blue/purple flowers; both are around 30 cm tall. J. dubia does need, at least in the south of the UK, what we would in the old days call a “Peat Bed”; basically a humus-rich, moisture-retentive raised bed. This genus has a distribution of Japan-China and Eastern North America in common with Podophyllum above and the closely-related Dipylleia.


Jeffersonia dubia

Vancouveria is named for the English seaman George Vancouver and not the lovely city, which independently was also named after the Captain of the survey ship Discovery. Hailing from the west coast of the USA and Canada it is basically a North American Epimedium. Three species are known and are in cultivation, but the commoner V. hexandra is a good easy-going ground cover plant, with white flowers atop the evergreen foliage.


Vancouveria hexandra (Photo: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Wiki Commons)

Achlys triphylla was named after the Greek God Achlys – god of hidden places, taken to mean woodland.  It is common on the west coast of Canada (where I took this photo, on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia), but has not managed to enter cultivation in the UK in any sustained way.


Achlys triphylla

Nigel Rowland is the owner of Long Acre Plants, based in Somerset, a mail order planstman's nursery specialising in plants for shade.