In the Garden:
New England
February, 2008
Regional Report

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Black flowers and foliage blend with many colors of plants but the eye of the flower gives you some especially good hints.

Into the Dark With Foliage and Flowers

A diminutive pansy was the first black plant to turn my head. It was such a rich, velvety color I couldn't resist it at the garden center. It was a knockout in my garden, interspersed with annual peachy pink phlox. Next, I planted some deep purple-black hollyhocks that offered a stunning backdrop to white hydrangeas. Now it seems there are new dark-leaved plants introduced every year, and there's lots to tempt those of us who are drawn to their dramatic potential.

A Touch of Black
Black conveys many things: mystery, elegance, strength. Because it goes with every other color, black makes an ideal background and a dramatic partner. Then again, certain plants with black foliage or flowers pack enough impact to stand alone, especially those that have interesting shapes.

Of course, black is a relative term when it comes to plants because black isn't actually a pigment; it's the anthocyanins (red, purple, blue) in the plant tissue that create the appearance of black. Dark foliage can recede into the background if there's nothing to offset it, so sometimes the best location is in front of other plants of lighter colors.

Deep purple can create the same drama as black, and the reddish undertones make it a wonderful accompaniment to flowers of red and pink. Here are some standout black and deep purple plants worth a second look:

Annuals With Dark Foliage
'Blackie' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatasis) is a common sight at garden centers in spring because its deeply lobed foliage and trailing habit make it a valuable addition to container plantings. As with the green version of this vine, 'Blackie' spreads readily and will overcome any dainty neighbors.

Elephant's ear 'Black Magic' (Colocasia) has huge, heart-shaped leaves and grows about 5 feet tall and wide. It's definitely specimen plant material and will be the focal point in any planting.

Several varieties of the tropical Acalypha wilkesiana have nearly black foliage and ruffled or serrated leaves, such as 'Raggedy Anne'.

Purple pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa 'Sparkling Burgundy') has a rosette of long, strap-like leaves and a tall, white flower spike reminiscent of a pineapple.

A caladium called 'Bicolor' (Caladium rubicundum) is similar to elephant's ear but in a smaller package -- about 18 inches tall. The black leaves are covered with deep pink flecks, suggesting companions with pink flowers.

You always can depend on cannas for some pizzazz, and Canna 'Australia' is striking without being garish. It has nearly black foliage and pinkish red flowers. At 4 to 5 feet tall, it makes a statement worth listening to.

Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') is perennial in warmer regions but not hardy in the north. Its beautiful, grass-like foliage goes well with pansies and with the contrasting foliage shape of coral bells (Heuchera).

Purple-leaved shamrock (Oxalis regnellii var. triangularis) looks great in containers or in the ground, especially when offset by its pink flowers.

One of my favorites for close-up impact is black-leaved Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop', with its succulent rosettes.

Dark Annual Flowers
I like the tiny white flecks amidst the dark petals of Scabiosa 'Ace of Spades' (Scabiosa atropurpurea), but it looked blah in the garden when I tried it a few years ago. You really need to plant small-flowered plants in a mass to maximize the effect of the deep color. It also would help to surround them with contrasting colors ... perhaps some silvery grey artemisia or tall, white snapdragons.

Deep red-to-black chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) is best when planted in a mass and where its habit of leaning over nearby plants will be appreciated. It actually has a scent reminiscent of chocolate, so keep it where you can appreciate this attribute.

Likewise plant small flowers such as velvety deep purple 'Bowles Black' Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor) and 'Pennie Black' baby blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii), with its white centers and white edges, in containers or near seating areas where they can be viewed up close.

Perennials and Shrubs
Speaking of coral bells, there are a few varieties with dark purple, nearly black leaves, such as 'Obsidian'. I'm going to try this planted with golden yellow rudbeckias. It also would be fun in front of calendulas or red and yellow gaillardias.

Purple ninebark 'Diablo' (Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diablo') comes in a beautiful package of purple-black leaves, white flowers, and red berries. Since it grows up to 8 feet tall and wide, it would make either a dramatic background or a focal point in the border.

There are several varieties of bugbane (Cimicifuga) with nearly black foliage, and tall, white, bottle-brush flowers late in the season. Last summer I planted red dahlias next to my bugbane and loved the effect, which echoes the combination already present in the dahlia variety 'Bishop of Llandaff', with its dark foliage and single red flowers.

Elderberry 'Black Beauty' (Sambucus nigra 'Black Beauty') commands attention with large, pink flower clusters set against dark foliage, and an impressive stature (10 feet tall). It seems to call for plants with golden or light green foliage in the foreground, such as some of the spireas.

Geranium maculatum 'Espresso' is perennial cranesbill type with darker foliage than most.

I haven't finished yet ... there are black calla lilies, tulips, sedums, coleus ... and I want to grow every one of them. After all, the "little black dress" didn't get its reputation as a wardrobe essential for no reason!


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