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Primadonna, supporting role or chorus line?

Imagine your garden is an opera......which plants ooze charisma, and are happy to be the central character? Which plants work well to support them? Which plants are 'quieter' in nature and can be planted en masse in large groups?


Plants which take central stage for me have to have an interesting structure and year round interest. So evergreens, and small trees with attractive bark as well as forms such as pollards or weeping, or unusual 'specimen' plants are a good choice. If it is the flower which is the main feature, I would choose something which flowers for a long time, preferably a whole season.

Examples of 'Primadonna' plants*

Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle), Dicksonia antartica, Buddleja alternifolia, Gunnera manicata, Acer palmatum,Yucca rostrata, Cornus controversa, Phormium tenax, Parrotia persica, Prunus cerasifera pendula, Corylus avellana 'Contorta', Stipa gigantea, repeat-flowering cultivars of Rosa.

Supporting roles

These are plants which have an impact, but look their best with another plant. For an example, a Tree Peony, which has striking leaves throughout the summer, and a brief flowering period of highly attractive flowers in early summer deserves a good spot in a border, but perhaps not central, because it doesn't look very good in the autumn or winter. The same thing might be said of Philadelphus (or 'Mock Orange') whose scent is intoxicating, but when not in flower, hasn't got very exciting foliage in the summer, but can work well as a backdrop for other earlier flowering plants or a centre stage grass such as Stipa gigantea. Wall shrubs and perennial climbers are often in this category.

Examples of 'Supporting Role' plants:

Philadelphus, Syringa, Buddleja davidii, Paeonia suffruticosa, Berberis thunbergii, Chimonanthus praecox, Escallonia, Cotinus, Forsythia, Hamamelis x intermedia, Cotoneaster, Garrya, Lonicera, Humulus lupulus 'Aureus', Ceanothus, Schizophragma hydrangeoides 

Chorus line

These are plants which add texture and colour at various points and can be planted in repeated clumps to add consistency and rhythm to a border. I would include annuals and smaller ornamental grasses in this category as well as what some people call 'ground cover' or 'edging' plants traditionally planted at the front of a herbaceous border.

Examples of 'Chorus Line' plants:

Stipa tenuissima, Phlox paniculata, Geum, Argyranthemum, Alchemilla mollis, Nigella damascena, Meconopsis cambrica, Astrantia major, Scabiosa atropurpurea, Centaurea montana, achillea millefolium, Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola', Geranium, Euphorbia amygdaloides, Lavandula, Oreganum vulgare, Verbana bonariensis

*N.B. All of these plant choices are purely personal to me as a way of helping me understand how plants work together aesthetically. If you think a plant I've put in one category belongs in another, or even belongs in more than one, feel free to put me straight!

Comments (8)

  1. Grower

    Jim Edwards

    Crikey nearly burst into song, what a lovely thought (no not my singing).
    However a few tips
    Mock Orange comes in a variegated form (innocence) and has attractive foliage
    alternatively let a clematis montana and a climbing aconite grow through it.
    Try and avoid the Lady's Mantles which self seed everywhere

  2. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    As a Professional Gardener, I would advise against letting any climber grow through any shrub, but that's for practical reasons, Jim, not decorative ones - often I get asked to reduce a shrub that has outgrown its space, and I find that it's got some climber or other twined all around it. sounds of hair being torn out

    The only answer is to slaughter the climber down to knee height, before working on the shrub -if you can't see it clearly, you can't prune it accurately.

    So I'm not so keen on this oft-repeated advice!!

    strikes dramatic pose and starts conducting

  3. Grower

    Jim Edwards

    The climber suggested is a herbaceous perennial and works well with shrubs

  4. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Climbing aconite is, yes, but clematis montana certainly isn't! You don't often see climbing aconite - Aconitum Hemsleyanum - let alone find it for sale... quick google search oh! Jim, you have some for sale! Haha, I see what you did there!

    How do you find it gets through the winter? A quick google suggests that it needs to be moist all through the summer, yet it is subject to rot if the root gets too wet over winter?

  5. Grower

    Jim Edwards

    Yes treat like a herbaceous clematis, the roots like to be shaded and kept moist but not too wet. Therefore ideal growing up through another shrub and to keep moist I have covered the base with weed suppressant and woodland bark which also gives some winter protection.
    My Montanas grow up through Pyracantha and Philadelphus which I find can all be pruned at the same time although I like to leave the Pyracantha late to appreciate the berries.
    Regards Jim

  6. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Thanks, Jim, that's very interesting.

  7. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    Hello all - just came across a book on Amazon with the similar theatrical idea.

    Loved this paragraph from one of the reviews:

    "I consider gardening to be a theatrical production; and Jane C. Gates has written a guide for people just like me. My garden is a Broadway musical. It has an overture in May, a dramatic act in June; and just before the July intermission, a show stopping number occurs in the rose bed. After intermission, several acts, each with a showy flourish, have been scripted to run through August and September, before the curtain comes down in October."

  8. Grower

    Good Earth Gardens

    Haha! Brilliant!

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