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Woodland wonders

Richard Wilford
30 March 2012
Blog team: 
The beautiful spring weather has brought the best out of the Woodland Garden at Kew.

While many plants are still just emerging, a range of early flowers is taking advantage of the light and moisture before the leaves clothe the trees and shade the woodland floor for the rest of the summer.

For a few weeks now, the borders in the Woodland Garden, around the Temple of Aeolus, have been carpeted with blue Chionodoxa but these have now mostly faded, only to be replaced by an equally brilliant blue covering of Scilla bithynica. This small bulb, from Bulgaria and north west Turkey, forms a shimmering haze of blue through which taller plants emerge. 


Kew's Woodland Garden in March

A stand of the crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, displays clusters of downward facing cups of orange at the top of metre tall, leafy stems. This impressive bulb comes from Asia, with a range stretching from Turkey to the foothills of the western Himalaya. It grows naturally in summer dry meadows and steppe but does well in the Woodland Garden because, when in full leaf, the trees draw excess moisture out of the soil, so the bulbs are never in waterlogged ground. 

The impressive crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis  

Two of my favourite woodland plants are among the many others appearing just now: Erythronium, the dog's tooth violets, and Epimedium or barren wort. 

Erythronium - the Dog's Tooth Violets

A few species of Erythronium are found in Europe and Asia but most come from North America. They grow best in humus-rich soil and dappled shade. Their elegant flowers, with petals that arch back when fully open, come in colours ranging from white and yellow to pink and lilac purple. They are in the lily family and closely related to tulips. The common name comes from the shape of the bulb, which is like a canine tooth. 

Left: Erythronium hendersonii from Oregon and California,

Right: Erythronium oregonum from British Columbia to southern Oregon 

The beautiful yellow flowers of Erythronium tuolumnense, named after Tuolumne County in California, the only place where it grows wild. 

Epimedium - the Barren Worts

Epimediums also have a broad range in the wild, extending from southern Europe and North Africa to Japan, with their centre of diversity in China. They grow from a mat of thin rhizomes and some species, like the Caucasian Epimedium pinnatum, form dense ground cover. Garden hybrids have been created, including a cross between E. pinnatum and the East Asian E. grandiflorum. It is called Epimedium x versicolor and various cultivars exist with flowers in subtle colours, from soft pink to pale yellow. 


Left: Epimedium pinnatum subspecies pinnatum, from the Caucasus,

Right: the hybrid Epimedium x versicolor 'Versicolor''



The ghostly Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum'


Soon these early woodlanders will finish flowering and give way to the summer shade lovers that are only now just poking through the ground, such as ferns, hostas and lilies, so make the most of these delicate ephemerals while they last. 

- Richard -


10 April 2012
Yes, they grow from bulbs so if you have a clump of bulbs they can be lifted later in the spring, once the leaves have died down, and divided up to be replanted elsewhere or to increase the size of the clump. Individual bulbs will naturally increase themselves by producing small offsets that will grow on to full-sized bulbs in a couple of years.
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8 April 2012
Can Dogtooths be divided?
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4 April 2012
Great pictures and information!I am looking forward to seeing these early flowers when our group does the annual visit to Kew,17 April. Hope they have not faded by then.
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2 April 2012
Great post. Beautiful pictures.
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