Good Together: Giant Potato Creeper, Golden Arundo, Vermont Gold Spruce

'Golden Chain' is one of the few cultivars of giant reed beyond 'Peppermint Stick' and 'Variegata'. It's also the newest, rarest, and most tender, which makes it all the more desirable. I always place its container in a suitably prominent spot—this year at one end of the garden's central axis. 


Arundo donax Golden Chain 060415 640


The colony is several years old and, this Summer, its canes might reach six or seven feet.


Arundo donax Golden Chain detail 060415 640


Their height combines with their large leaves' bright non-fading stripes to ensure that this is one container plant that will be visible even from a distance.


But does any plant—even one so dramatic as this—realize its ultimate potential for beauty and excitement all by itself? Maybe a gigantic weeping beech growing in a ten-acre meadow but, then again, for that tree to really show off its size and massive writhing branches, it needs the ten-acre meadow. Arundo donax 'Golden Chain' is also a star, but that doesn't mean it's condemned to solos on a bare stage. Instead, every Spring is an opportunity to lug its tub to an entirely different stage, I mean location, in the garden. Last year, 'Golden Chain' was the destination at the end of one of the crosswalks; this year, it's the focus of the entire garden's main axis.


And the company is as extraordinary as the location. How about this grapefruit-sized cluster of lavender blossoms? No, they aren't flowers of agapanthus. This is giant potato vine. When I profiled this scandent tropical monster, I was snaking its heavy stems up through my variegated aralia. Another year, it was staked and standalone at the end of the pink borders, with Verbena bonariensis exploding all around.


Solanum wendlandii Arundo donax Golden Chain Picea abies Vermont Gold all three 060415 640


This season, I've tied the main stems of Solanum wendlandii to an even taller length of rebar. Then, its ever-lengthening side stems can flounce around through the fast-growing canes of the golden arundo, which are so strong, and their leaves so heavy and stiff, that they might even lift the cumbersome Solanum stems skyward over the Summer. The Solanum leaves will probably increase the chance of lift-off: They have curiously effective downward-curved spines on the ridges of the veins on the bottom sides of the leaves. The weight of the growth and the sharpness of the spines combine to increase the chances that the solanum doesn't just lean on and through its host plant but, rather, impales itself to it. 


To the east of both the Solanum and the Arundo is the hardy member of this season's trio, a gold-needled semi-dwarf form of Norway spruce. As is often the case with yellow-foliaged conifers, needles of Picea abies 'Vermont Gold' can scorch if the sun is too strong or the ground is too dry. Some dappled coverage in the afternoon is safest. The tub of tall Arundo provides it, with the occasional sprawling stem of Solanum only increasing the protection.


Visually, the pairing of the Solanum with the Picea is the equal of that with Arundo. The spruce's glowing needles are nearly the color of the pale-green Solanum buds, while the conifer's bristling density is a lively counter to the vine's comparatively large simple flowers and glossy green leaves.


Solanum wendlandii over the Picea abies Vermont Gold 060415 640


June is still early season for this display. The emerging 'Golden Chain' canes are probably just a quarter of their mature height, while new stems of the Solanum—which bear clusters of flowers at their tips—are just beginning to spring outward. Those emerging towards the front will land atop and amid the steadily-rising Arundo canes; those emerging at the back will swan dive down to the Picea


Solanum wendlandii pot set between Arundo donax Golden Chain Picea abies Vermont Gold 060415 640


If the climate were milder, I could leave this trio in place longer into Fall. As it is, by mid-October, the Solanum must be sheltered; by the end of the month, the Arundo, too. If the garden were frost-free, could the arrangement be permanent? No, and no again: For one, the spruce requires a cold Winter. For another, the Solanum would eventually overwhelm both of its partners, and the pruning and pinching needed to control its size would inevitably encourage dense regrowth, not what I hope will be this year's long and "just strolling about" stems.  


This year's performance, then, is strictly seasonal and, maybe, never to be repeated. After all, many of my other plants are also this striking; surely there are other as-talented partners—and for the containered Solanum and Arundo, other locations entirely—for each member of this trio. 



Here's how to grow Solanum wendlandii.


Here's how to grow Arundo donax 'Peppermint Stick', whose handling is the same as for 'Golden Chain'. Golden Chain is thought to be slightly less hardy—to Zone 7a, not 6. 


Here's how to grow Picea abies 'Vermont Gold'.


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