One season a customer came into the nursery where I was working and asked me what my number one recommendation would be for a fairy garden. (I later googled it... there was a whole trend I knew nothing about) Being at the time completely baffled, I said off the top of my head, "Epimediums".
Turns out it was a pretty good guess, probably prompted by the knowledge, somewhere in the back of my addled brain, that one of their common names is "Fairy Wings". Not sure whether that applies to the flowers or the foliage, which is indeed wing-shaped on many of them, but they all have a dainty look that belies their extreme toughness in the garden.
In fact, they've become one of my top go-to plants for dry shade, thriving even in the rooty soil under evergreens in my garden. And once you have them established they're remarkably reliable... I now have many clumps of Epimedium x youngianum 'Niveum', all descended from one plant I bought sometime around 1991. They have a reputation for being slow (they'll sit for a year, but then increase steadily) and pricey (most really good plants aren't cheap). But once you discover how charming and useful they are, you'll never want to garden without them.
There are dozens of varieties now on the market, so do your homework before investing heavily... some kinds are only hardy to Zone 6 or 7. Early spring is their moment of flowering, just as the new foliage unfurls. The tender new leaves soon toughen up into a shiny, dense mass that smothers all weeds and stays tidy well into the winter. The only maintenance must is to clip off (with scissors) the old stalks and remaining dead foliage very early in the spring, before the delicate new growth pushes up.
One more thing... they seem to have very few enemies. I've never known rabbits or deer to eat them, and insects don't bother them either. So maybe they are enchanted.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.