Companion plants! Great, what a good idea. When you first hear the term and think about the concept it sounds great but there is a lot to not like about it. The term “companion plants” implies that these plants are partners and they “enjoy” each other’s company. The term is an anthropomorphism or overlaying of human qualities on non-human organisms. A more appropriate term may be plant associates or plant associations, a term taken from plant ecology, which has more basis for use.
Plants naturally grow together in groups which are called plant communities. These plants evolved under certain climate, soil, and environmental conditions that allow them to live together in the same place. Coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, and juniper pinyon woodland are some common plant communities where I reside in Ventura County. All of the plants growing in these communities receive winter rainfall and summer drought (Mediterranean climate) to which they are adapted to grow in. Plants growing here either resist drought through specific plant adaptations such as reflective leaf surfaces (white sage), abundant trichomes (sycamore), microphylly (buckwheat), succulent water storage (agaves, yucca and other lily family bulb forming plants), and C-4 metabolism (grasses). Some plants avoid drought by growing in the rainy season, setting seed and then remaining dormant during hot dry weather. Plants can grow in this climate because they have the adaptations to do so.
Plants compete for resources and while doing so may provide a place for other plants to grow. Trees have an advantage over grasses because they can grow above, catching the sun and shade the grasses out. But shade may also provide a place for shade adapted plants to grow. Plants surviving challenges in a specific environment may end up growing together. Woody plants also provide perching birds a place to defecate and spread seeds. This is why unexpected things may grow under other plants. Shade may even be necessary for development of proper form. We have noticed in studying western hackberry (Celtis reticulata) that the tree has no apical control and will not develop into a tree shape when grown in full sun. When grown in shade apical control is present and the plant grows a straight trunk. Birds commonly eat hackberry fruit and likely disseminate it under the canopies of other plants. I don’t think the hackberry minds growing as a blob but its “companion” plants cause it to change form due to changes in light intensity.
Some plants live very closely with others. Mistletoe is a great example. Leafy mistletoe is a hemiparasite deriving its energy from sunlight of its own leaves but utilizing water and photosynthate from its host. Similarly there are free living plants such as Indian paint brush (a member of the Orobanchaceae) that are also hemiparasitic using their roots to extract benefit from neighboring plants. Holoparasites are true parasites deriving all their nourishment from their hosts, e.g., Dodder (Cuscuta spp.). Dwarf mistletoe is also holoparasitic as it largely lacks chlorophyll. These plants are always found on or near their hosts but it is hard to call them true “companions.” The plants clearly associate with each other and in some cases are detrimental as one of the plants stands to gain nothing from the interaction.
One popular example of “companion planting” is The Three Sisters (TTS) polyculture of corn, squash and beans. This agricultural system is said to be synergistic. Corn provides support for beans and shades the squash, and beans provide nitrogen fixed from the air for the other two members of the system. The system was “practiced” by indigenous Americans all across the continent. Soils, rainfall and climate are quite diverse across the United States, and I am sure that TTS agriculture had mixed success. It is an interesting thought that the human diet can be satisfied by these crops and likely the combination was more about ensuring sustained calories and nutrients for those who grew them. In one published study there was no increase in production when comparing TTS to mono-cultures of the component parts, nor was N increased in soil. This makes sense since it’s not available until the plant dies giving up its nitrogen to the next crop which is the basis of legume cover cropping. Continued use of the TTS system is a zero sum game as corn and squash will rapidly use all the nitrogen from the previous year’s legume crop.
Mutualism is the concept that interactions between two organisms benefits both. There are many examples of plants that have a mutual relationship with insects, birds, fungi and bacteria. I found no examples of plants that have mutual relationships with other plants, e.g., “companion plants”, common to the scientific literature. I thought this was unusual so I called a friend who is a plant ecologist and asked her the question. At first she was enthusiastic and pointed to non-plant-plant relationships. As I redirected her to only plant-plant interactions we could not identify anything. My suspicion is I have missed something important or we will discover one day that there are plants evolved to help one another but for now, it evades me.
There is no doubt that one plant can help another but it’s incidental and not a sign of a mutual relationship. Most plants evolved to grow in communities because the growing conditions are suited to all. Knowledgeable gardeners and landscape architects will group plants that grow well together. This is only common sense.
Understanding how plants grow in nature informs gardeners about adaptations and this in turn elevates the practice of horticulture.
Martinez, R.T. 2008. An evaluations of the productivity of the native American ‘Three Sisters’ agriculture system in northern Wisconsin. M.S. Thesis. University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, College of Natural Resources.
Marsh, E. 2023. The Three Sisters of Indigenous American Agriculture. National Agricultural Library (USDA). https://www.nal.usda.gov/collections/stories/three-sisters