Exotic Companions - the remarkable diversity in our parks & gardens

2nd August 2020
A garden means many different things to different people. For some it's a place of retreat and recreation, for others a place of work and creative endeavour. Rarely considered, though, is its propensity to be a place of remarkable discovery and surprise in terms of combinations of plants that would not normally, in their own native habitat, be found together or even in some instances even be seen side by side on the same continent! And yet this is what we find all around us in our modern-day parks and gardens.
dense undergrowth with small flowers and leaves

The English Garden

Take a stroll through a typical English garden, or perhaps a park in your neighbourhood, and it's easy to be mistaken into thinking many of the familiar flowers and shrubs would be pretty much home there. But the truth is most are not. They are strangers.

Even if we compare the range of plants available to, say, a 16th century Tudor gardener to the discoveries made by the many intrepid plant hunters of the 17th century onwards, we can already see a very different picture indeed. It was they who brought back numerous exotic plants from the New World, from China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to enrich the English botanical landscape - so that what we might take for granted today as being a typical English-garden complement of flowers is in fact an extensive amalgamation of different plants from all over the globe.
lavender plant with leafy background, sunny day
English lavender – despite the name, it really has its origins in Mediterranean climes. Here it is happily growing near to a yellow Euryops (hailing from South Africa, and which never seems to stop flowering) and, to the rear of that the beautiful textural leaves of a Pittosporum from Australasia.

The exclusive garden setting

What this means in practice is that only in a garden setting, only in an artificial space created by people, can certain juxtapositions of flowers, fragrances and foliage ever be experienced. This potential exclusivity is, in fact, a perfect example of the sum being greater than its parts. An exciting exercise in creativity from the natural world.
lilac coloured agapanthus flowers
Blue agapanthus, native to South Africa with a bronze Cordyline (or cabbage tree) from New Zealand in the background. A fabulous combination of colours and textures from two plants whose origins lie either side of the Indian Ocean.

Historical blending

We don't have to go far to find examples of these stunning combinations. It's probably something that most plant fanciers achieve without giving it a second thought. All the photos in this post were taken in my own back yard or from visits to parks, and even a humble window box will in some way celebrate the exotic blending of similar items. They really are everywhere to be seen if we care to look. 
yellow lilies against background of green bamboo leaves
Stunning orange lilies from southern Europe against a backdrop of dense Bamboo, which could have come originally from any part of Asia you care to mention - most likely China or Japan. And, sneaking in on the left, some Bergenias, I think, from the far-flung Himalayers.

Invasive exceptions

Well, it all sounds very nice and harmonious, and indeed most plants have a amazing way of growing together without disrupting the habitat of the others. But just occasionally there have been some disastrous introductions from overseas. The arrival of Himalayan balsam and Japanese knot weed in the 19th. century have not exactly been beneficial for the UK countryside.

These are plants that have proved highly invasive because they have few, if any, natural predators or diseases in the British Isles. Thus, if left unchecked, local native plants are simply smothered, and any invertebrates and the wildlife that rely on them will invariably suffer, too. There is an official list of invasive plants, and any sign of them must now bring forth a rapid application of herbicide and a cordoning off of the area until the authorities are absolutely certain the plants are gone.
agapanthus flowers against rich foliage
A paler form of Agapanthus against a rich combination of foliage: the waxy, oval leaves of Bergenia, (known colloquially as ‘elephant's ears’) and which comes originally from central Asia and the Himalayan region, alongside those of  yet-to-flower chrysanthemums - which come from China and neighbouring areas in East Asia.

Carry on Gardening

Those rare exceptions of invasive species becoming a problem will not discourage gardeners from experimenting, of course. People are always attracted to the exotic. And hybrids, too, are continually being produced.
bright red crocosmia flowers against purple hebe
I think this is my favourite photo of the series. Crocosmia Lucifer from South Africa in the foreground with a gorgeous hebe variant from New Zealand, plus a little piece of yellow-green euphorbia for good measure - and whose exotic origins might have ranged anywhere from Madagascar to the Pacific Islands. What a glorious, dramatic combination!


red lily in raised bed
A crimson European-origin lily, fronted by white agapanthus from Africa.

Climbers, too

two climbing flowers, yellow honeysuckle with a red sweet pea
Climbers interweaving. Lathyrus latifolius - the perennial sweet pea from the Mediterranean, Italy and Greece, reaching up through some good old 'English' honeysuckle (actually not English at all, but originally from Eurasia).

Heliopsis (false sunflower)

a drift of bright yellow flowers against dark foliage
A cluster of bright yellow flowers from the Asteraceae family - most likely Heliopsis from America on tall stems, backed by the cool textural foliage of English Yew (top right) and the blue-green lacy fronds of creeping Juniper (lower left) - an evergreen which has its origin in North America and Canada.

Embracing History

Contemplating the origins of plants gives us a different slant on garden appreciation. And it really is part of the magic of creating a garden space - because in so doing the gardener is quite possibly attempting something that will never have been seen before. Among the millions of years of evolution, only in the past few centuries have such marvels been possible. And we can all do it. We can embrace innovation and combine a huge variety of plants in our gardens, and possibly even make a little history ourselves, too.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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