Rose Queen Epimedium: Whimsical Full-Shade Plant

And Reputed Aphrodisiac

Rose Queen Epimedium image.
Epimedium grandiflorum 'Rose Queen' is a type of barrenwort. David Beaulieu

What Is Rose Queen Epimedium?

Let's begin with the way the plant is referenced in plant taxonomy. The botanical name is Epimedium grandiflorum 'Rose Queen.' Alternate cultivar names are 'Crimson Queen' (not to be confused with the namesake Japanese maple), 'Crimson Beauty,' and 'Yubae.' As with Mayapple plants, gardening novices are sometimes surprised to learn that it belongs to the barberry family.

Although the plant goes by several common names, the genus name is sufficiently well known to serve essentially as a common name in its own right. When I use it as such, I do not capitalize or italicize. Epimediums are classified as herbaceous perennials, although, in some cases, they may be semi-evergreen.

What Does It Look Like?

The specific epithet, grandiflorum means large-flowered, and, indeed, while the foliage of this perennial is highly valued for three seasons of the year, the whimsical flowers steal the show in spring. A common name for the species, Epimedium grandiflorum is "longspur barrenroot," a reference to the appendages on the flower petals, known as "spurs" (columbine is another flower that possesses spurs).

These flowers, which bloom in April and May, are a deep rose color (thus the cultivar name, 'Rose Queen'), and their spurs are tipped in white. The remarkable shape of the flowers -- thanks in part to the spurs -- has inspired two other common names that I discuss below. Each flower stalk produces a small group of these quirky flowers.

The new leaves in spring are dark, with a hint of bronze, before settling into their summertime green. Heart-shaped, the leaves bear tiny teeth along the margins. Darkness and that touch of bronze seep back into the foliage in fall.

Rose Queen epimedium is a clump-forming, deer-resistant perennial that spreads by rhizomes. It attains a mature height of 12-18 inches, with a similar width. But the plant may eventually spread, due to its rhizomatous nature, a nature that also makes it easy to divide this perennial (if you wish to propagate it), which you can do either after it is done blooming or in fall.

Growing Conditions, Geographical Origin

The species plant, Epimedium grandiflorum is native to the Far East. In North America, you can easily grow this perennial in planting zones 5-8.

Install Rose Queen epimedium in partial shade to full shade. The ground should drain well, and its soil pH should be on the acidic side. A fertile loam into which you've worked humus is preferable. How much water it needs will depend in part on whether you've chosen to locate it in partial shade or full shade. If in the latter, it won't need as much water and can actually be considered one of the plants tolerant of dry shade.

Flowering is likely to be superior if you grow the plant in partial shade.

Common Names for Epimedium and Its Reputed Aphrodisiac Qualities

Two common names for E. grandiflorum that draw their inspiration from the unique shape of the blooms are "bishop's hat" and "fairy wings." I would have selected "jester's hat" as a name, myself, but nobody has ever asked for my input on the subject.

You've probably heard of "horny goat weed," but you may not know that the "weed" in question is epimedium. More specifically, "horny goat weed" refers to an herbal supplement used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat erectile dysfunction in men (as well as sexual dysfunction in women). E. grandiflorum (and some other species native to China) is the source of this herbal supplement. According to Cathy Wong, ND, About.com's Alternative Medicine Expert, "There isn't enough information on horny goat weed to safely recommend it...."

In light of the reputed aphrodisiac qualities of E. grandiflorum, you may be wondering why the common name, barrenwort is sometimes attached to epimedium. The name, "barrenwort" stems from the belief that the plant had contraceptive properties. The name belies quite a different emphasis from "horny goat weed." So what accounts for this discrepancy? 

Some suggest the confusion is based on a case of mistaken identity. "Barrenwort" comes entirely out of the European tradition, where the native epimedium is not E. grandiflorum but, rather, E. alpinum. So perhaps the herbalists in Europe did, in fact, have a plant with contraceptive properties with which to work, while those in China had an aphrodisiac at their disposal. 

Uses in Landscaping

Here are some possible landscaping uses for Rose Queen epimedium:

  1. Flowering ground cover for an area in partial shade.
  2. Interesting foliage plant for gardens in full shade.
  3. Low-maintenance landscaping option for homeowners on the go.
  4. Edging plant in shady areas.
  5. Woodland garden plant.
  6. Plant to grow under trees.
  7. Companion for plants that like acidic soil and partial shade, such as azaleas and rhododendrons
  8. Rock garden plant for shaded spots.