“Lady White, a half-serpent, half-female, was running an apothecary, known as the Temple of Preserved Harmony. When an epidemic broke in Zhenjiang, she proclaimed that herbs were the answer, and then set out to gather them on the Mountain of a Hundred Plants. The afflicted population miraculously recovered after drinking her herbal remedies”, at least that’s what the legend says…
It is believed that for over 5,000 years, the Chinese have been compiling medical treatises. The first recognizable description of a Chinese Epimedium, the ying yang herb (E. sagittatum), was given in the earliest Chinese pharmacopoeia: Shen pen ts’ao ching (Han dynasty) and later in the famous Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu (Ming dynasty). Considered the most comprehensive Herbal Encyclopaedia, with 8,160 different prescriptions, it was written by Li Shih-Chen over a period of 27 years. In it he expanded and classified most of the known herbal remedies and introduced new ones. Li Shih-Chen, believed to be the greatest naturalist in the Chinese history, is commemorated in the name of Epimedium lishihchenii (that explains the difficult spelling we have to endure!).
The bridge between the Epimediums used as medicinal and Epimediums used in horticultural purposes, like in many other cases, is short and easy to be crossed. Maybe they all come from the Mountain of a Hundred Plants, or maybe not, they are wonderful anyway. From the evergreen leaves, often with red or mahogany mottling to the big spidery, campanulate or small but numerous flowers, in a wide array of colours, everything speaks in their favor. Many species have been discovered only in the last decades and even more are eagerly awaiting for their ‘collector’. Japanese botanist and horticulturist Mikinori Ogisu had been a major contributor to the knowledge of the genus Epimedium in China. He discovered and introduced new species in cultivation, collecting and photographing hundreds of plants. Illustrated here are two wild collected clones, from a hybrid ‘swarm’ between E. acuminatum and E. fangii, discovered on Mount Omei, released as E. x omeiense ‘Akame’ and ‘Stormcloud’.
Note on the cultivation: these Chinese natives grow in the temperate forest of mountainous regions in part shade, requiring moisture and a rich, organic substrate with good drainage. So, forget about the myth that all Epimediums are plants good for dry shade conditions – some are and some are not! For the Chinese Epimedium species imagine you are in a lush forest where green, shiny moss blankets rotting stumps and rocks, water is trickling gently nearby, dragons are flying…..(or match them with good garden companions like Hosta, Polygonatum, Disporum, ferns…).
Many species have been introduced in cultivation in the last 10-15 years, along with a plethora of hybrids and varieties. The following gallery presents just a few from the many Chinese Epimediums from Lost Horizons Nursery.