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Pacific Northwest | May 9, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMay 9, home
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Happy Together
With the right 'friends,' rhodies are enjoying new popularity
Ferns make good companions for rhododendrons because they naturally grow together, meaning they have similar cultural requirements. They also offer complementary textures and colors.
AFTER YEARS of being ignored, if not actively scorned, rhododendrons have ridden the roller-coaster ride of popularity back to the top, just like coleus and hydrangeas before them. Varieties with wide, magnolia-like leaves and species with attractive, pelt-like foliage are driving the renewed interest in these workhorse plants too long seen as clichés of Northwest gardens.

But it isn't just the whiff of exotica or alpine interest that is propelling this new kick for rhodies. It's also a more integrated approach to using them in the garden. How often have you seen rhodies lined up in formless hedges, squeezed against a house or drooping in the middle of a lawn? To be fair, it can be difficult to mix rhododendrons with other plants. Because they're thirsty and shallow-rooted, they resent much competition. So it's worth taking some time to consider what will work.

Woodland understory plants are ideal rhody companions, especially if one of our goals is to group plants in naturalistic-looking communities. Picture a statuesque, pruned up Loderi rhododendron underplanted with silvery sages, sedums and lavender, a combination as discordant as fingernails on a chalkboard. You don't need to know that these plants hail from disparate ecological regions to see they don't consort happily. That same rhody trunk rising out of a cluster of ferns and hostas, or a carpet of native wildflowers, creates visual rapport and an easy-care combination because all plants involved share cultural requirements.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Corydalis is a low-growing perennial with foliage as finely textured as a maidenhair fern and daintily spurred flowers in yellow, purple or blue. It enjoys rich, moist soil and shade to partial sun. Corydalis foliage fluffs out just as bulbs fade, so it's ideal for covering up their dying foliage. C. lutea has golden yellow flowers that bloom through summer. C. flexuosa 'Purple Leaf' blooms earliest in spring with lavender flowers and leaves blotched in purple; 'Blue Panda' has gentian-blue flowers while those on 'China Blue' (above) are the color of a pale spring sky.
Rhododendrons are harmoniously merged into the larger garden picture at the Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way, and at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens on Whidbey Island. At Meerkerk, even as the first rhododendrons come into bloom, the ground beneath is thick with hellebores, blue spikes of muscari and scores of miniature narcissus. The heart-shaped leaves and fragrant flowers of false lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) form large drifts, mixed with patches of sweet woodruff. True lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) is also the right look and scale, but tends to be invasive. Primroses, especially the little Wandas, English doubles and drumsticks (P. denticulata), along with woodland anemones, add splashes of color.

A little later in spring, bleeding hearts unfurl their lacy leaves and old-fashioned flowers in shades of party pink and pure white (Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba'). Hostas are used throughout, especially the glaucous-leafed ones, which they've found to be the most slug-resistant. In one area, hostas with blue-tinted leaves are underplanted with blue star creeper (Pratia pedunculata).

Miles south in Federal Way at the species foundation's acres of gardens, spring bloom includes tiny cyclamen, erythroniums and trillium, as well as narcissus and hellebores. Later in the season, the ground beneath the rhodies is coated in colonies of ferns and hostas. The huge, Frisbee-shaped leaves of rodgersia and ligularias contrast with the Japanese maples and the carpeting of moss beneath. Native plants such as salal (Gaultheria shallon) and huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) mingle happily with rhodies and ferns in the shady woodlands.

We tend to visit these gardens to ooh and ah when the rhodies are at their showiest. But the most instructive sight may well come a bit later when the big blossoms fade and the rhodies share the spotlight with their companions, helping us find good matches for these everything-old-is-new-again favorites.

As part of Meerkerk Gardens' Silver Jubilee celebration, there's a Mother's Day Concert on the Lawn today from noon to 4 p.m. Meerkerk is open daily in spring from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Whidbey Island at 3531 Meerkerk Lane, off Highway 525 and Resort Road. Admission is $5 per person. For more information, see or phone 360-678-1912. The Rhododendron Species Foundation is on the Weyerhaeuser campus in Federal Way; cost is $3.50 per person; see or call 253-661-9377.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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