Beyond the rhody: Exploring unique pairings for your rhododendron garden

Often companion plants or plants of different species are used to accentuate a rhododendron garden. Courtesy Siltcoos Station Retreats

May 12. 2023 — A singular rhododendron is a lonely rhody, indeed. Gardeners the world over have embraced this marvelous and varied plant by channeling creativity while designing their gardens. To do this, companion plants or plants of different species are used to accentuate a rhododendron garden.

We will focus on just a few that are hardy and non-invasive in the Pacific Northwest (meaning they do not die during coastal winters and won’t take over your garden) and particularly stunning when paired with rhododendrons.

As we all know, a rhody blooms and then the color is over. The plant, however, can provide shelter for an abundance of unique and colorful plants.

The foliage and early spring flowers of brunnera or “false forget-me-nots” are particularly striking. There are a variety of brunnera from solid green, yellow, to variegated leaves. All have springtime blooms forming small, starburst-shaped blue flowers. After flowering, it’s striking foliage remains for the entirety of the season.

Winter doesn’t have to be colorless either. A beautiful plant with a very unfortunate name, “lungwort,” can brighten up your rhodies. Often blooming as early as February, these clumps of magnificent spotted leaves with spikes of pink, purple, or white flowers will remain until the end of spring.

Again, when the flowers are gone, the intense foliage remains.

Accompanied by bergenia, a thick leaved creeping plant with deep green to bright red foliage, you may be surprised to see beautiful pink flowers from December to April.

Spring often is the most productive time in our gardens for growth and rhododendrons are no exception. They will bloom and spend the rest of the season putting out new branches and leaves.

Accent these leaves with more leaves! Often overlooked as parking lot landscaping, ornamental grasses, particularly Japanese forest grass, look stunning when paired with rhodies. These come in yellows, reds, greens, and a variety of heights and sizes. Some are less hardy than others so be sure to cross reference their growing zone (you want zone 8 or lower).

You can really open the painter’s palette by adding some hostas next to your grasses underneath your rhodies. There are entire clubs based on the hosta and its stunning ability to provide beautiful foliage. Often compared to lettuce, hostas come in a variety of colors including light blue, striped yellow, green, red stemmed, and albino. No matter your preference, there is a hosta for your rhody.

Most important, when adding companion plants to your rhody garden, add plants that make you happy and meet your desired level of plant care and maintenance. For the more experienced gardener looking for their next challenge, try may apples, or podophyllum. These intense and

challenging plants reward you with their unique appearance and are guaranteed to be a conversation starter.

A hardy form called Spotted Dotty does particularly well on the coast and would suit anyone interested as their first May apple purchased; however, be warned that many of the other varieties take a keen green thumb and are very expensive.

We look forward to seeing your rhododendron blooms at the late spring show. Be sure to get your flowers to the Florence Events Center on May 20 from 7 - 9 a.m.

Other plants to consider, coral bells, lenten rose, ferns, toad lilies, saxifraga, lewisia, hardy begonias, columbine, native foxglove, bugleweed— the options are limitless