The dark side of the plant world

Only a few trees, shrubs and flowers wear the deep shades of night

In The Garden

October 20, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

I 've got to come clean right up front. There are no black plants.

There are midnight-blue, velvety purple-black, virtually black burgundy, and plants the color of bottled Shiraz. But inside-of-your-hat, iron-cauldron blackness is almost nonexistent in the plant world.

"True black plants are rare," says Karen Platt, author of Black Magic and Purple Passion (self-published, 2000, $29.95) and founder of the International Black Plant Society based in Sheffield, England. No matter. It's not really color purity that most gardeners are looking for anyway. It's effect.

"Black plants are curiosities," says Ken Druse, author of The Collector's Garden: Designing with Extraordinary Plants (Clarkson N. Potter, 1996). "For example, there's a strange tropical plant called Tacca -- the bat plant -- which is a long whiskery thing with two giant wings and an amazing giant black flower."

Even though there is very little in the way of Halloween-at-midnight black, there is a marvelous range of extremely dark (let's call them black) plants that add depth and stunning beauty to almost any pot, perennial bed or indoor collection.

"Most are really dark purple," says Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, N.C., "but they give the illusion of black in the garden."

Colocasia 'Black Magic,' a giant elephant ear, is actually a midnight-bluish-purple with purple veining, as is the iris 'Superstition,' tulip 'Queen of the Night' and salvia 'May Night' (Salvia nemorosa 'Mainacht'). The blossoms of 'Black Knight' butterfly bush (Buddleia) are very dark purple with tiny French vanilla throats.

"There's some really cool ornamental peppers that have deep purple foliage and deep purple fruits," notes Druse, "and of course there's 'Blackie' sweet potato vine [Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie'] that you see spilling out of containers everywhere."

Stick shifts

Other "black" plants are burgundy or russet-black like the tulip 'Black Hero'; iris 'Hello Darkness'; black hollyhock (Alcea rosa 'Nigra'); Cimicifuga racemosa 'Hillside Black Beauty,' whose burgundy-black foliage is topped by 5-foot-tall white spikes; and Rudbeckia occidentalis 'Black Beauty,' whose bulbous heads look like a clutch of escaped stick shifts. (The butterflies love them, and the birds feed off them in the fall.)

Many of the plants with "black" foliage are enhanced for several weeks of the year with lovely bright blooms. For example, the 6-inch-tall tufts of black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') sport pink blooms in summer and black berries in fall.

"There are dark-leafed dahlias like 'Bishop of Llandaff,' which has a scarlet flower, and 'Ellen Houston,' which has very dark red-brown foliage and flowers that are kind of sherbet- peach," says Druse.

Weigela 'Wine and Roses', a tough, deciduous shrub, has deep forest-green / black foliage that shimmers in the sun and highlights beautiful rosy blooms in early summer.

Dark-foliaged plants are wonderfully dramatic, but can lose their distinction when too many are grouped together.

"An all-black plant garden looks like a smudge," says Druse. "Black plants work better as contrast. For example, the chartreuse sweet potato vine 'Limelight Margarita' and 'Blackie' are incredible together.

"We use black plants against bright colors like yellows and oranges, which gives them a sunny background and makes them show up," agrees Avent.

Punctuation marks

Druse uses black plants as "punctuation marks -- dashes and periods and exclamation points" -- to accentuate a curve or the end of a path or the full stop between two gardens. Placement -- both in relationship to other plants and to the sun -- is key to achieving the most dramatic effect.

"Dark-leafed and dark-flowered plants look darker with the light behind them," notes Platt.

"Black" trees and shrubs such as European beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Purpurea Triciolor'), which has black-purple leaves edged with deep rose; purple-leafed hazel bush (Corylus maxima 'Purpurea'); and Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Velvet') all look like haloed negatives in a back-lit landscape. But tucked into a south corner where the light spills down onto the leaves, the tones bleach to dull purple and burgundy.

In addition to good lighting, some black plants need full sun or heat to develop their darkest hues.

"Black mondo grass likes deep shade, but with the majority of black plants, the more sunlight you give them, the more intense the color will be," notes Avent, though many begin to lose the intensity in extreme heat. Ask about individual plant requirements when you buy.


International Black Plant Society


J.W. Jung Seed Co.

335 S. High St.

Randolph, WI 53957-0001


Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, SC 29695


Plant Delights Nursery

9241 Sauls Road

Raleigh, NC 27603


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