Deciduous Companion Trees
Joan Woodbury, Gaston, OR
Reprinted from Tualatin Valley Chapter newsletter
Whether in or out of flower, rhododendrons are the perceptional and conceptional center pieces of the rhododendron lover's garden. But trees are the backdrop in front of or the canopy under which rhododendrons and companion plants are set. Perhaps you could get by without them but I don't see how.
Companion is the perfect name for many smaller, less hungry trees which may be set directly amongst rhododendrons. In fact, plantings I have seen which include trees of this description seem healthier and more vigorous than those without. Perhaps they all benefit from the added grooming and nurturing we extend to mixed plantings. Given the space limitations in the established gardens of many members, finding room for even one tree could prove a challenge. But this fall why not select just one companion tree which you have never grown before and find a place for it in your border of rhododendrons. If you have a favorite grouping of richly textured low growing rhodies, a medium-sized tree (shrub) such as the Amelanchier laevis (Service Berry) with its excellent form, flower and foliage, can serve to draw your eyes with its own beauty and direct your vision downward to those favored ones.
Start with a seedling or very young tree (then you won't have to move but one or two rhodies) and give it a special spot all its own to shine in, as the lovely single white flowers of the fast growing, wide-spreading Crataegus 'Autumn Glory' will surely shine each spring. An added bonus is the large and long-lasting red fall fruit on this Hawthorne. Azaleas make a nice under-planting with this companion tree.
Decide what you want the tree to look like in ten years (a small Acer japonicum var. aconitifolium, whose blossoms are more striking than most maples, becomes more beautiful with each passing year) and then prune and shape it to be displayed to its best advantage. A Magnolia stellata 'Waterlily' may show no special promise in someone else's yard but could be breathtaking in yours if you calculate ahead - plan for the silhouette it will display, the shadows it will cast and the height and width it will obtain.
Crabapples, of which there are countless varieties, ('Dolgo', 'Sargentii' and 'Hopa' are three of my favorites), are beautiful during all the seasons of the year. Plant one in a prominent location, let a mass planting of small-leaved rhododendrons: 'Carmen', 'Elisabeth Hobbie' and 'Little Gem', flow around its base and it will be a treat for your eyes and mind for years to come.
The message of spring found in the soft new growth of a Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress) placed within view of a kitchen or living room window is what keeps gardeners coming back for more. While not for the small garden, it is definitely worth finding a place for, if not in your yard perhaps in your neighbor's!
A large Prunus 'Ben Hoshi' with arching branches drops its soft pink petals on the path which runs beside a large R. barbatum with plum-colored bark. Plant the gallon-sized tree today that will provide that living picture for many tomorrows.
Probably you already have a Styrax, several varieties of Stewartias and Dogwoods, and perhaps the dwarf Sweet Gum 'Gum Ball', but wouldn't your rhododendrons enjoy the companionship, shade and shelter of a new small deciduous flowering tree?
(A personal note:) I want to try an Halesia Carolina 'Snowdrop Tree', one of the most attractive American natives...a fine shelter plant for combining with an under-planting of azaleas or rhododendrons. Another tree which intrigues me is the Franklinia alatamaha (Franklinia) which Sunset Magazine says enjoys "rhododendron conditions". Is anyone growing these trees at this time? I would enjoy knowing more about them.