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The Genus Epimedium and Other Herbaceous Berberidaceae Including the Genus Podophyllum

By William T. Stearn

Timber Press, Inc., 2002

Hardcover: $49.95


The title gives you a clue that this is not light reading.  This monograph is a revised and much enlarged edition of one written by the author in 1938.  Many of the currently listed epimediums were discovered in only the last decade, greatly expanding the scope of the subject.


 In 1990, I ordered seven varieties of epimedium, all that were commonly available at the time.  I was an early fan of the genus commonly known as Barrenwort.  When this book became available, I anxiously watched for its arrival.  My first mind-numbing attempt to read the text was intimidating.  From preface to history to morphology, I felt out of my depth.  I started to skip ahead to cultivation and photos.


The photos stopped me.  They are glorious pictures of epimedium among their neighbors, most from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, along with equally lovely paintings.  Okay, I like the pictures.  But the important thing is that they led me to interesting parts of the text.  Backtracking, I returned to the Geographical Distribution section, which proved to be quite interesting.  Spiced into the text are photos of the places in which epimedium choose to grow naturally.  The steep mountainsides featured give a new appreciation of those plant seekers who found them.


“Wherever epimedium is found, woodland and scrub in temperate hilly or montane regions provide the essential conditions for its existence… without them,” Stearn continues, “the genus would not survive.”


The specifics of successful cultivation, based on their habitats in the wild, are easy to understand.  “…they thrive best under moderately cool and half-shady conditions, preferably in moist but well-drained humus-rich soil. Their rhizomes creep shallowly below the surface and in the wild are mulched by fallen leaves.”    Stearn continues, “…soils should be enriched with abundant humus, preferably leaf-mould, to which a little slow-acting fertilizer may be added.”


An extensive Key to the genus is provided, along with very detailed discussions of the species.  In the seven-page discussion of Epimedium grandiflorum, the author explains the Japanese name ‘Ikariso’ “from ikari (grapnel or anchor) and so (plant), the four long curved spurs of the flower suggesting the four-fluked grapnel (Nottsuzume ikari, four-claw anchor) which is used by Japanese fishermen.”


It is a hefty price to pay for someone who is not a botanical scholar, but would still be worth seeking out in libraries for gardeners who are enchanted by the spidery early spring blooms held high on wiry stems and the beautifully veined and colored foliage that follows.   Many of the epimedium that have been discovered are not yet available for our gardens, but more are showing up with every catalog.  With this scholarly work in hand, you will have a better idea which ones you have to have.


Reviewed by Karin Guzy