Good Together: 'Amethyst Falls' Wisteria, Variegated Climbing Hydrangea, & Variegated Japanese Tree Angelica

Immense variegated pinnate leaves and dense pine-cone-sized clusters of lavender flowers: At first glance, this could be the ultimate plant. In reality, this is a duet of 'Amethyst Falls' wisteria—demure and much later-flowering than the Asian forms—and just a portion of one of the gigantic palm-like leaves of the 'Aureovariegata' form of tree angelica.


Wisteria frutescens Amethyst Falls Aralia elata Aureovariegata 061015 640


Each leaflet of Aralia elata 'Aureovariegata' has an irregular yellow margin; at five inches long, the entire leaf of Wisteria frutescens 'Amethyst Falls' is barely larger. The contrast in scale is intense: Each immense aralia leaf bears scores of leaflets, in an array four feet long and three wide. The wisteria leaf has eleven leaflets, and isn't larger than the palm of my hand.


Despite its delicious extreme, this size difference is the least of the display. It's the harmonies that (fittingly) sing the sweetest. The pale yellow of the aralia variegation is similar in saturation to the pearly lavender of the wisteria flowers. And because the flowers of this American species of wisteria are borne in cob-like clusters, not the pendulous airy chains typical of the Asian forms, the blooms are displayed atop the comparatively flat (and huge) plane of the aralia foliage, like colorful fruit garnishing a cheese platter. Two-foot racemes of Asian wisteria would break through the planes of the aralia's carefully-arrayed leaflets, bending or even snapping their supporting ribs.  



Wisteria frutescens Amethyst Falls Aralia elata Aureovariegata 061015 cropped 640


The combination of pale yellow and pale purple or blue is foolproof—and, because there are a lot of choices in both colors, easy to iterate. The aralia is planted at one side of a huge stone slab that I had mounted vertically on a heavy frame. The wisteria has been trained up and over the slab, which is the reason its flowers are high enough to be displayed atop the aralia leaves, not beneath them. In front of the slab, another combination of wisteria flowers with yellow-variegated foliage is also working well. 


Wisteria frutescens Amethyst Falls Doronicum pardalianches Hydrangea anomala miranda 061015 640


A painfully-slow dwarf form of variegated climbing hydrangea is at last as high as the lower reaches of the stone slab. Contact with such a suitable climbing surface will speed up its growth so, in two or three years more, stems of Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris 'Miranda' will have clothed much of the remaining exposed surface of the slab. The result will be a colorful, densely-textured, vertical backdrop in front of which the wisteria stems and blossom clusters will demurely dangle. 


Hydrangea anomala petiolaris Miranda Wisteria frutescens Amethyst Falls Doronicum pardalianches 061015 640


The straight species of climbing hydrangea is in full flower now. Someday, so will be 'Miranda'. Then, I'll have the pleasure of coordinating its typical flat heads (corymbs is the Latin) of white blooms with the cluster-of-grapes ones of the wisteria. Would a wisteria cluster be able to perch atop a hydrangea corymb, like grapes atop a doily?


(The yellow daisy is Doronicum pardalianches. Not counting the bright yellow blooms of Taraxacum officinale—dandelion—Doronicum is the first of the desirable hardy yellow daisies to flower. To my eye, the pairing would be better if the Doronicum were paler, but there aren't yet any such forms.)


If either of these wisteria pairings could be achieved by a single plant—one that had variegated foliage and sported clusters of lavender flowers—that plant certainly would be the category killer, the ne plus ultra, for the whole pale-yellow-with-lavender concept. All that would be needed would be to find such a creature, afford to buy it, and then plant it and nurture it. (True, because such a plant doesn't exist, that's a mighty big "all.")


But each of these flowers-and-foliage effects requires two plants, one for foliage and one for flower. And all three participants are reasonably available and easy to grow. Nonetheless, I think each duet display (let alone that of the trio) is more of an achievement than if some fantastical solo plant had created the entire show. With such all-capable plants, gardening is just a bit more about shopping and a bit less about thinking—about considering what plant could grow near another, and how their differing talents might possibly synergize. In this case, I needed to train the wisteria loosely up and over the top of the stone slab so its growth would be high enough to drape down gracefully onto a leaf of an aralia planted intentionally within reach, as well as sprawl at the front of a tight-to-the-stone veneer of climbing hydrangea.


Time is an important element in the creation of this combination, too. The hydrangea was planted twelve years ago and, even in this favorable soil and exposure, is only now gathering its head of steam as it "races" up the stone. For the first decade after planting, it was so far away from the wisteria planted at the other side of the stone—all of four feet!—that there was no synergy at all.


And while Aralia elata can be quite fast-growing after it's established, its 'Aureovariegata' cultivar can sometimes fail to thrive completely or, just as disappointing, die back to the unvariegated rootstock. After a couple of struggling years, that was my first aralia's lot. This replacement has thrived, but is only now hitting its stride.  


And so, this compostion of one shrub and two vines has been well over ten years in the making. In another two or three, it will be more-or-less fully realized. In another five or ten—or twenty? Fantastic.



Here's how to grow Wisteria frutescens 'Amethyst Falls'.


Here's how to grow Aralia elata 'Silver Umbrellas', as well as a look at its marvelously primeval trunks and limbs in Winter. Here's what it looks like in full foliage and flower. Its hardiness and handling are the same as for 'Aureovariegata'. 'Aureovariegata' is larger overall (to about fifteen feet high and wide) as well as in foliage size, and can be slower to establish—or, alas, fail to establish for no good reason. 'Silver Umbrellas' is more compact (to about twelve feet high and wide) and can be established more reliably.


Here's how to grow the unvariegated form of Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris 'Miranda'. Although Miranda grows at a fraction of its pace, its hardiness and handling are similar.

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