Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
January, 2005
Regional Report

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Look closely at these black pansies and you'll see yellow and purple hues, a hint of what to plant nearby.

A Bewitching Garden

A diminutive pansy was the first black plant to turn my head. It was such a new, 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. For several years I've dabbled with dark purple-black plants, adding one here or there. This year I'm expanding the use of this bewitching color in my garden.

A Touch of Black
The color black conveys many things: drama, 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.

There are more black plant choices than ever before, and here are some standouts:

'Blackie' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatasis) 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.

A new 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.

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.

You always can depend on cannas for some pizzazz, and Canna 'Australia' is striking without being garish (yes, I do think some cannas have this potential). It has nearly black foliage and pinkish red flowers. At 4 to 5 feet tall, it makes a statement that I plan to listen to this summer.

At the canna's feet, maybe I'll plant black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'). Its beautiful, grass-like foliage goes well with pansies and with the contrasting foliage shape of coral bells (Heuchera).

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. I planted red dahlias last summer 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.

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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