When horticultural types talk of ‘black plants’ they don’t really mean actual, pitch black flowers and foliage; rather they mean plants which have either flowers, or foliage in shades ranging from almost black, smokey plum, aubergine and purple to the deepest port reds and browns. They also include plants with dusky variegations in foliage.
Dark plants were very fashionable in the late nineties, when they were considered very choice and no chic garden was complete without chocolate cosmos or Actaea simplex ‘hillside black beauty’. Once these plants became omnipresent and the market reached saturation point, with supermarkets selling dark-leaved dahlias the gloss began to wear off.
Helen Dillon says she’s over dark leaved plants, noting that they make no more than black holes in the border. Normally I agree with and slavishly lap up the estimable Mrs Dillon’s every word, but in this case I will defiantly defend these lovely and rare creatures.
Black plants look great in various combinations. If you want a truly hot and exotic looking border mix plants with black flowers and foliage with reds, fiery oranges and yellows. For example deep, claret sweet Williams Dianthus barbatus and bright red poppies look wonderful and dramatic together. The dark and red colour combination is seen to perfection in a some single plants like the ever reliable dahlia, Bishop of Llanduff. This easy to propagate plant has inky dark foliage and glorious bright red flowers.
Dark foliage plants can also be used in cooler colour schemes. Sambucus nigra- the more refined, black flowered version of the common elderflower look fantastic as a backdrop to smokey plums and pale pinks like Papavar ‘Patty’s Plum’ or creamy buffs and whites.
For those who become obsessed with black plants, the Holy Grail is the almost pure black flower – they are never truly jet black but some come jolly close. Helleborephiles like me long to own the darkest of slate coloured oriental hybrids. I have waited for three or four years for a dozen plants to grow from seed and almost cried with frustration when 90% turn out to be a ‘meh’ wishy washy pink. It is the elusiveness of the dark flower is what makes it so desirable. Similarly if you want to grow the black opium poppy Papavar somniferum you will need to grow it from packets each year and not allow it to set seed in the garden, otherwise the following summer you will have thousands of poppies; one or two may be black, but the rest will be a mix of colours and some will be the dreadful, shaggy double flowered variety that look like frilly pink knickers. The same goes for any other self seeders such as Aquilegia vulgaris ‘dark columbine’ – great dark smokey shades the first year, the next a mixed bag of common blues and wishy washy pinks.
You can go for tonal arrangements using various shades of plum or go for a striking contrast. Acid green and glaucous foliage makes a superb partner for dark flowers and foliage.
Remember that gardens change continually with the seasons so you can do successional schemes. For example cardoons and artichokes will look wonderful with black tulips and black aquilegias in late spring. As summer goes on tall spires of dark aubergine coloured lupin varieties and irises can take over the and in autumn the dark Sedum telephium ‘purple emperor’ and dahlias will take centre stage.
If you don’t fancy using using dark-leaved plants in the border, they can look great in containers and window boxes. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ or black Mondo grass is almost a true black. It is a tiny strap leaved plant and can be swamped in the border so is perfect for planting in pots. It makes a great planting partner for all manner of plants and summer bedding. Aonium ‘zwartkop’ is a tender succulent grown for its foliage. It is best planted on its own in a nice terracotta pot because it doesn’t like much water and it needs full sun to turn satisfyingly dark. Bring it indoors in winter or during cold weather.
I predict a return to fashion for these dark beauties – as in fashion, trends have a habit of returning every decade or so. Below are some of my favourite and easy to grow black plants.
- Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’ – wonderful scalloped black foliage, good groundcover and at edge of borders.
- Alcea rosea ‘Black Beauty’ – a gorgeous old fashioned hollyhock, up to 1.5m tall, but prone to rust like all hollyhocks.
- Angelica sylvestris ‘Ebony’ – this huge umbellifer is a real stand-out plant, dark brown architectural foliage and huge flat headed umbels of smokey purple flowers.
- Aquilegia ‘Black Barlow’ – a lovely dark double-flowered aquilegia – will not come true from seed.
- Atriplex hortensia ‘Rubra’ – mountain spinach, really more of a very dark rusty plum colour, this is a hardy annual, will self-seed, grows to about 1m and is edible. A great filler for a later summer border.
- Cornflower ‘Black Ball’ – dark, deep plum version of the common cornflower.
Dahlia ‘fascination’ – I love this dahlia, it is short – about 30cm but has dark, dark leaves and lovely bright purple flowers.
- Cosmos astrosanguinea ‘Chocamocha – delicious chocolate scented dark brown cosmos. Can be difficult to keep from year to year.
- Fritillaria persica – spires of velvety black bells in springtime
- Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ – delicate early flowering perennial geranium with dark flowers and black splotches on the leaves. Can run riot so keep an eye on it.
- Hemerocallis ‘Black Prince’ – delicious dark day lily.
- Heuchera ‘Blackberry Jam’ – lovely dark coloured low growing plant, great for the edge of borders and in pots.
- Ligularia osiris ‘Cafe Noir’ – great black foliage plant with bright yellow daisy-like flowers.
- Nasturtium ‘Black Velvet’ – a lovely deep, rich velvety red version of the common orange nasturtium.
- Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ – small compact plant with black strap shaped leaves, has mauvey coloured flowers but really grown for foliage.
- Rodgersia pinnata ‘Chocolate Wings’ – satisfyingly dark version of the big leaved foliage plant.
- Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ – dark leaved version of common elder, lovely lacy foliage.
- Scabious ‘Chile Black’ – dark pincushion flowered version of common scabious.
- Tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ – the best and tallest of the black tulips.
- Viola ‘Roscastle Black’ – a dainty little pansy that is good in pots.