Black plants—or really flowers and foliage that are so deep purple or red that they appear black—transform flower borders and containers from the expected to the extraordinary. They are dramatic up close yet understated from afar. Black adds excitement, yet the deep tones are restful on the eyes. Many of these plants bring an exotic, tropical feeling to the garden but are perfectly cold-hardy. For organic gardeners, black plants make the statement that you can be chemical-free and chic.
Black flowers and foliage appeal to gardeners who like to try new things. Black flowers are sophisticated: 'Black Gem' cornflower and 'Superstition' iris, for instance, look almost dangerous next to their paler sisters. Black enhances other colors. It draws the eye, declares Karen Platt, author of Black Magic and Purple Passion (Black Tulip Publishing, November 2004) and founder of the International Black Plant Society. Black can be an exclamation mark in a sea of silver, for example. Responding to demand, growers are developing ever-darker varieties, including old favorites such as sweet peas and coleus.
Picking the Plants
Even those of us who adore black plants find that choosing them is sometimes a bit of a challenge. So I asked gardeners growing black plants to share which they like best and how they use the dark varieties in the garden.
Tulip: 'Queen of Night' is a near-black tulip that looks great mixed with something pale like tulip 'Angelique' (a pale pink, peony-flowered variety). —Barbara Damrosch, author of The Garden Primer (Rodale, 2003)
Hellebores: I appreciate black and dark red hellebores because they hold their color long after paler pinks and whites have faded to green in the spring heat. Black-flowered hellebores are luscious, but against the bare soil of late winter, they disappear. To make them stand out, I combine them with pale-flowered bulbs and glowing foliage. Snowdrops and winter aconite bloom as the hellebores are opening. Both set off the dark flowers with their pure, bright colors. Later in the season, I use white variegated or yellow sedges such as golden woodland sedge. —Cole Burrell, author of Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials (Rodale, 2004)
Grape: Purple-leaved grape, also known as claret vine, grows 12 feet the first year and turns a beautiful warm red color in fall. Grow it with 'Powis Castle' artemesia or silver-leaved lavenders at its feet. In the spring, when the vine is bare, the artemesia makes a perfect lace skirt around 'Queen of Night' tulips. —Sally Roth, author of Attracting Butterflies and Hummingbirds to Your Backyard (Rodale, 2001)
Violas: I grow black Johnny jump-ups and let them self-sow around pale yellow primroses and golden feverfew. —Lauren Springer Ogden, author of Passionate Gardening: Good Advice for Challenging Climates (Fulcrum Publishing, 2000)
Smoke bush: Purple smoke bush makes a great moody backdrop for billows of 'Monch' blue aster, or for sulphur-yellow 'Moonbeam' coreopsis. You can clip it low, to stay an accent piece in a smaller-scale garden, or you can prune off the bottom branches and train it into a graceful tree. Or slice it off at ground level in spring before budding and it'll send up poker-straight new shoots that look great with June perennials. Smoke bush's foliage turns muddy brown by late summer, but all is forgiven when it flames into a burst of orange and red for fall. —Sally Roth
Shrubs: I use Physocarpus 'Diabolo', Weigela 'Wine and Roses', and Sambucus 'Black Beauty' to complement the perennials and to help tie the garden together. My favorites all grow well in my zone and do not require spraying, extra fertilizer, or staking. Plants that need the "intensive care unit" to survive do not make for a sustainable garden. —Stephanie Cohen, coauthor of the Perennial Gardener's Design Primer (Storey Publishing, 2005)
Mondo grass: I have a much-loved, incredibly slow-growing black mondo grass in an old Japanese pot—it's a great container plant. —Lauren Springer Ogden
Vegetables: I would grow some of my favorite black vegetables for their magnificent color alone. The tomatoes 'Black Cherry', 'Black Plum', and 'Black' are stunning on a plate. The color of the ornamental peppers 'Purple Delight' and 'Royal Black' is a saturated ultramarine violet. And the pumpkins 'Futsu' and 'Yokohama' are gorgeous traditional Japanese varieties. —Amy Goldman, author of The Compleat Squash (Artisan, 2004)