Complementing the Rhodo Bed

by Carmen Varcoe - December 1999

I love rhodos with wonderful indumentum or exceptional leaf colour. In my opinion, one of the most outstanding for golden brown indumentum is Rhododendron ‘Sir Charles Lemon’. One happy accident (aren’t most in one’s garden?) occurred when I planted some trumpet lilies near this marvellous rhodo. The stamens of the lily perfectly matched the colour of Sir Charles’s undersides. With an added dose of late afternoon sushine backlighting the duo, it made a perfect combination. As an added bonus, the lilies didn’t need staking as the rhodo branches served the purpose more naturally.

Other favourite rhodos are those with glaucous or blue leaves such as R. concatenans and R. oreotrephes. Such plants as these can be even more spectacular with plantings of Hosta sieboldiana elegans or any of the blue leaved hybrids. A smaller hosta with such colouring is Hosta Hadspen Blue, possibly the bluest leaf hosta. I have found the blue form to be more slug-resistant and able to retain its colouration even in dense shade.

Some foliage complements that I’ve found successful have been the pulmonarias. The silver or spotted varieties are most effective with the above mentioned rhodos. Pulmonarias ‘Excalibur’, ‘Spilled Milk’, ‘British Sterling’, and ‘Majesty’ are all good varieties and now on the market - well worth searching out.

Brunneras are other good companion plants for rhodos. They prefer shade and some moisture throughout the growing season. Brunnera macrophylla variegata can make a clear and bright addition to any shaded border. There is also Brunnera ‘Langtrees’ which has an interesting configuration of steely silver spots on its large heart shaped leaves. Both these brunneras are more difficult to find but make a rhodo border more appealing through the summer months.

If you wish more of the bluish colour to complement your rhodos, try Dicentra ‘Boothmans’. This plant will give you the steel blue colour combined with a delicate lacy texture.

For leaf shape, Rhodo williamsianum (Caerhays form) is hard to beat for its bright green orbicular leaves. One fern that looks wonderful with this little gem is Adiantum venustum. It is an evergreen maidenhair fern that is low growing and provides lacy texture, even in winter. In spring, the new fronds are a delightful deep pink. What more could one ask for in a companion plant? Make sure you plant this fern literally on the surface as it resents deep soil; the roots prefer to scrabble in the forest duff or top dressing.

Another fern, I particularily like is Dryopteris wallichiana. It is also an evergreen treasure and stands out because of its dark brown midribs and upright growing croziers. I think it would make a wonderful complement to Rhododendron fulvum’s bright cinnamon indumentum. One cautionary growing tip: this fern does appreciate a slightly sheltered site or at the very least a well drained one, to guard against losing it in our cold wet winters.

All these woodlanders appreciate moisture, good soil and at the very least, shade from the hottest part of the day. Naturally, it means watering in the summer, but don’t we do this anyway if we are already growing rhodos?

Happy plant hunting!!