Feb 18th, 2013

Gardeners: Black is Back!

by Lynn Kirk, Public Relations Writer, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden,  reprinted with permission from the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Savvy garden designers seeking drama and intrigue recognize the power of black. There’s a world of black beauties – more than 4,000 plants sporting dark-hued foliage, flowers or fruit – that can innovatively transform any garden from ordinary to extraordinary. Though true-black plants are a rarity in nature, dark cultivars of familiar plants are being introduced at an increasing rate. Today, the tulip, geranium, pansy, sweet potato vine, elephant’s ear and even the orchid sport popular basic-black varieties.

Black plants seem to lack color, but they actually demonstrate an overabundance of anthocyanins, which are pigment compounds found in flowers and fruits. Their blackness is actually deep blue, red or another combination that appears black in sunlight.

Black plants seem to lack color, but they actually demonstrate an overabundance of anthocyanins, which are pigment compounds found in flowers and fruits. Their blackness is actually deep blue, red or another combination that appears black in sunlight.

“Black is misunderstood and people are reluctant to use it in quantity, but black is an asset to any garden,” said Karen Platt, founder of the International Black Plant Society. Platt has experimented with black plants for more than 20 years and authored three books on the subject. “Black plants offer more depth and excellent contrast with brighter plants, rendering them brighter still,” she said. Deep-colored plants also rev up cool color palates, adding exciting depth to silvers and blues. Whether used in a foreground border or incorporated in a backdrop, deep-colored companion plants add depth to landscapes and accent light-colored fences and trellises. The darkest-of-the-dark plants serve as alluring focal points for container plantings, providing unique blends of sophistication and elegance. Their distinctiveness also prompts interesting conversation among garden admirers.
The gardener does need to be knowledgeable, however, since use of darkly colored flowers and foliage has its own set of cautions. Some designers suggest avoiding all-black gardens since the plants tend to disappear against soil and mulch, creating a black-hole effect rather than distinctive prominence. The juxtaposition of black plants with colorful plantings is the key to visual interest. For the same reason, dark cultivars should be paired with brightly hued containers and garden decoratives. And in terms of plant performance, areas with sufficient sun are important since too much shade may cause black plants’ coloring to become dull and uninteresting.
“Black has earned its place in the garden. It’s for those who dare to be different,” said Platt, who continues black plant gardening in Sheffield, England. Platt’s book and related periodicals are available at the Lora M. Robins Library at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

A list of plants with black foliage and flowers.


Common Name Botanical Name Cultivar
Elephant Ear Colocasia esculenta  ‘Black Magic’
Purple False Eranthemum Pseuderanthemum atropurpureum
Bromeliad Vriesea vinicolor
Bromeliad ‘Mo Peppa Please’
Common Name Botanical Name Cultivar
Ajuga Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’
Ajuga Ajuga reptans ‘Catlin’s Giant’
Begonia Begonia ‘Black Fancy’
Rex Begonia Begonia rex-cultorum
Coleus Solenostemon ‘Othello’
Coleus Solenostemon ‘Black Lace’
Coleus Solenostemon ‘Dark Star’
Coleus Solenostemon ‘Apocalypse’
Columbine Aquilegia vulgaris ‘William Guiness’
Columbine Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Black Barlow’
Coralbell Heuchera ‘Obsidian’
Coralbell Heuchera ‘Chocolate Veil’
Cornflowers Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Boy’
Cornflowers Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Ball’
Cosmos Cosmos ‘Chocolate’
Dianthus Dianthus ‘Sooty’
Elephant Ear Colocasia ‘Black Magic’
Geranium Geranium maculatum ‘Espresso’
Geranium Geranium ‘Mourning Widow’
Geranium Geranium phaeum ‘Chocolate Chip’
Bronze Fennel Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’
Basil Ocimum basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’
Hollyhock Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’
Hollyhock Alcea rosea var. nigra ‘The Watchman’
Millet Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’
Moth Orchid Phalaenopsis ‘Spring Prince’
Lady Slipper Orchid Paphiopedilum ‘Black Bird’
Black Mondo Grass Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’
Purple Fountain Grass Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’
Ornamental pepper Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’
Pansy Viola x wittrockiana ‘Black Devil’
Pansy Viola x wittrockiana ‘Black Moon’
Pansy Viola ‘Bowles Black’
Pansy Viola x wittrockiana ‘Black Prince’
Pincushion flower Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Ace of Spades’
Black Baccara Rose Rosa ‘Meidebenne’
Dragon’s Blood Sedum Sedum spurium ‘Schorbuser Blut’
Snapdragon Antirrhinum majus ‘Black Prince’
Sunflower Helianthus annuus ‘Moulin Rouge’
Sweet Potato Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’
Tulip Tulipa ‘Black Parrot’
Tulip Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’



Editor’s Note: This article first published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, on Feb. 12, 2012.

Jonah Holland is Digital Content Manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where she has worked for 14 years overseeing social media, the blog, and the website. She is also a mom, yogi, open water swimmer, gardener, and seeker. She's been known to go for a walk in the Garden and come back with hundreds of plant photos, completely inspired to write her next blog post.

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