University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Fall News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

In our northern winters, when the outdoor landscape is generally black and white, it is a good time to think about incorporating black plants into this next year's garden.  What I'm referring to are of course live plants, not those black from death! Rather than thinking of death and funerals, think of sexy and elegant.

Black plants can be used for dramatic effect, not just in contrast to white flowers, but with most colors including pastels and metallics.  Black can be the main color, or mixed in a border to contrast with other colors.  Low black plants in mass as a groundcover provide a perfect backdrop to contrast other colors.

When choosing plants, some you may find on "black" lists have dark purple or dark red flowers or foliage instead of pure black.  Plant color may also change, depending on location.  The black color in leaves is the result of pigments.  In low light, a black plant needs more of the green pigment, or chlorophyll, to make energy, so leaves may be much more green or coppery than black.

For spring, you might use the tulip Queen of the Night.  Introduced the middle of the last century, it still remains popular and hasn't been surpassed for its near-black color.  Once it is through, you might plant annual groundcovers of Blackie sweet potato or black Nigrescens mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus).  Pansies you might try for early spring black include Black Prince, Black Moon, or Bowles Black.

You might plant a perennial groundcover of a dark-leaved bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), through which daffodils might emerge each spring for a wonderful contrast of colors. Just use caution, as bugleweed can spread rampantly! Although the species and some cultivars (cultivated varieties) are green, there are several with dark red or purplish leaves including Bronze Beauty, Burgundy Glow, and Catlin's Giant.

Annual flowers you might consider for summer include the small plant, and 5-lobed flowers, of Pennie Black (Nemophila).  This one with its deep purple flowers, edged in white, is different from most its "Five Spot" relatives which are generally blue with 5 spots. Snapdragon Black Prince has dark red flowers and near black leaves. A couple of black cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) you may find are Black Boy or Black Ball.  Chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) is grown more for its dark maroon flowers than faint scent. One of my favorite sunflowers has dark red, almost black flowers (Moulin Rouge).

Among the annuals grown for their dark foliage are several cultivars of coleus.  Othello is one, with ruffled edges, as is Black Lace.  Dark Star and Apocalypse are other choices.  As a contrast use the recent annual millet, an All-America Selections winner, Purple Majesty for its dark leaves.  This could provide a coarse texture next to the fine texture of the herb Bronze Fennel.  Another herb with dark leaves, quite fragrant, and excellent for cooking, is the Purple Ruffles Basil with its near black leaves.

There are many exotic or tender perennials, sometimes even tropical, to consider.  Blackie sweetpotato was mentioned above.  Rubrum fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ) provides a finer grass texture than the Purple Majesty millet.  There is a dark cabbage palm (Cordyline), and several chocolate to dark New Zealand flax (Phormium) for a spiked effect.

For hardy perennials, for dark foliage, consider the zone 5 hardy Chocolate hemp agrimony (Eupatorium), several of the coralbells (Heuchera) such as Obsidian or Chocolate Veil, and sedum such as Atropurpureum and Vera Jameson.  Dragonís Blood really does sound dark (and gothic), and is one of several of the low sedum to consider. Espresso is a hardy perennial geranium with dark chocolate or "espresso" leaves.

Perennials with dark or black flowers include William Guiness columbine (Aquilegia), Nigra and The Watchman hollyhocks, Chocolate Chip mourning widow geranium, Black Knight delphinium, Sooty dianthus, and Ace of Spades pincushion flower (Scabiosa).

For more ideas on using black plants, and choices, including vegetables, vines, shrubs, and trees, visit the International Black Plant Society online.  Author Karen Platt, on this website and in her book "Black Magic and Purple Passion", has some great suggestions for such plants and gardens.

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