Good Companions

by Carmen Varcoe  September 2003


As the rhododendron flowering season winds down for yet another year, we can now consider other plants that help give a multi-layered aspect to the garden.  Rhododendrons are truly spectacular when in bloom and a goodly number are breathtaking for their foliage alone.  To make a garden interesting all year, however, one must consider companion plants.  This group is limitless.  From small ground covers to large trees, there are no real exclusions except, of course, for growing conditions.  When you read where most rhodos originate in the world and equate this with where most of our woodland plants come from, it’s easy to see why there’s a host of material from which to choose.  Bulbs, ferns, grasses, vines, shrubs and trees all make good companion plants for rhododendrons.


At Finnerty Gardens, we are constantly trying to include plants that will extend the season with interest in early summer well into late winter.  As you walk into the garden from the chapel entrance, several plantings have shown that companion plants are indeed worthy.  Polystichum neolobatum, the long-eared Holly fern, combined with Carex morrowii ‘Evergold’ and Iris foetidisssima all look well whatever the time of year.  The fern has attractive waxy fronds, the carex, golden striped and the iris has dark green spikey leaves with vivid orange seed heads.  All these plants act as wonderful additions when combined with Rhododendron yakushimanum, a lower growing excellent foliaged rhodo.


Across the path is a stand of Arum pictum which has good triangulate leaves emerging around the fall rains, and persisting throughout the winter and well into the spring.  The plants die down for the summer, which makes them good for areas that are dry at this time of year.  In the early fall, berried paths make attractive additions to the edge of this walkway.  Further along the path is a small grouping of Lonicera nitida ‘Lemon Beauty’, a gold and green low-growing evergreen honeysuckle, excellent for brightening a shady area throughout the year.  Continuing along the same path, there is an old stump adorned with Hedera colchica, a large-leaved variegated ivy.


For larger plants, the knockout in June is the Cornum kousa just inside the lawn area across from the chapel.  It is covered in creamy bracts that almost succeed in hiding its leaves.  This dogwood has been very successful in Victoria, as it has proven more resilient to the blight that has affected out native dogwoods.  Another tree that is proving to be a wonderful addition is the Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’, a slow-growing tree often referred to as the ‘Wedding Cake tree’.  It grows its branches in a tiered fashion with variegated creamy leaves.  Look for this near the path just inside the entrance.  Very near the same area is another spectacular tree called Davidia involucrate, with large drooping creamy white handkerchief bracts.  It always draws lots of comments in early June.


Throughout the garden, many recently donated Acer palmatum maples have been added.  The Japanese Maple is a consummate companion tree for rhododendrons.  Slow growing with a wide variety of shape and leaf pattern, not to mention fall colour, these trees make valuable additions to Finnerty gardens.  Newly planted acers can be viewed around the pond and in the recent Henderson Road borders.  Another worthy companion tree is the Cercidiphyllum japonicum or Katsura tree.  Several of these magnificent trees have recently been relocated into the Henderson borders.  In early spring, they have heart-shaped pinkish newly emerging leaves which then turn to a light green.  In the early fall, the Katsura leaves turn a bright yellow and often, if the temperature is right, will give off a scent of burnt sugar as they fall.


Continuing into the fall season when one really needs some interest, we have the small cyclamens emerging.  Cyclamen hederifolium with its myriad of patterned leaves first sends up bare stemmed delicate pink and white flowers.  These are quickly followed by leaves which provide lots of ground cover throughout the winter.  Also Cyclamen coum is notable with its bright cerise flowers that arrive with its leaves in late winter.  Both of these corms are perfectly content all summer in the shadiest and driest parts of the gardens and make a welcome sight for those gloomy winter days.


As I previously noted, the list of companions is limitless.  These are only a fraction of them.  I recall one gardener hinting:  “never plant a rose without adding a clematis as well” – to this I add never plant a rhododendron without a suitable companion, be it grass, fern, bulb or tree.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Finnerty Gardens Newsletter July 2003