Epimediums: Barrenworts or Horny-Goat Weeds? – part 1

How come Epimedium species got to have these contradictory popular names?

Europe: From the aphotecary to the garden

Who would have thought around the year 1600 that one plant from a physic garden, grown to supply the adjacent apothecary would end up famous centuries later for its real medicinal ‘virtues’?

Epimedium alpinum was the first Epimedium to be recorded by the Italian botanist and herbalist Luigi Anguillaria in 1561 from a woodland near Vicenza. Because at that time the genus Epimedium had not been described yet, based on its appearance, he thought it was a medicinal plant described by Dioscorides in De Materia Medica under the name Epimedion, which had presumably contraceptive properties.

 Cultivated as such into a few European gardens during the following years, it was named Epimedium alpinum by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, and thus it became the type of the genus Epimedium. Because at that time plants were cultivated mostly for their (presumed) medicinal properties in physic gardens, it was referred to as ‘Barren Woort’, which became ‘Barrenwort’, a popular name still in use today for this group of Epimediums, although there is no scientific evidence of them having any contraceptive property. We know today that Dioscorides was talking about a different plant, possibly……

Therefore by confusion with another plant, Epimedium was named and used historically in Europe as a contraceptive, which is exactly the opposite of its real medicinal properties that have made it so famous in modern times. As for its ornamental qualities look what they were thinking at that time:

 “The little dingy Epimedium alpinum, known only in the gardens of Botanists, gave no promise of its representing a line of beautiful herbaceous plants, and for a long time it was supposed to be the only one of its race” – from Edward’s Botanical Register (1849).

A few Epimediums from E. alpinum ‘family’:

How wrong they were in 1849! The little Epimedium from the gardens of botanists, contributed to a few hybrids with high ornamental value, still in cultivation today. The best known today, E. x rubrum, resulted from a cross between E. alpinum and E. grandiflorum, and was mentioned first as E. alpinum var. rubrum in Belgique Horticole in 1854.

Epimedium x warleyense (E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum x alpinum), appeared in the garden of Ellen Willmott, who had an Epimedium collection at Warley Place in UK. It has two noteworthy cv. with orange flowers ‘Ellen Willmott’ and ‘Orange Koenigen’.

E. x cantabrigiense is a cross of E. alpinum x E. pubigerum, with the cv. ‘Black Sea’ maybe the best known. ‘Little Shrimp’ is considered by some a var. of alpinum, although by its look, I would go with Darell Probst and say it’s a E.x cantabrigiense hybrid.

To be continued with the horny-goat weeds…