By Laurie Brown
Black foliage is striking in the garden; it draws the eye. Because dark colors recede, black foliage can make the garden look bigger; put it in the rear of the beds and the borders step back. It’s the best backdrop for a lot of colors; “Black Beauty” elder makes this obvious by itself with its pale pink, doily shaped flower clusters. Not just white and pastels stand out, though; bright orange, shocking pink, and red become electric when paired with dark foliage. And it’s not just flowers that contrast well; silver and gold foliaged plants provide all season drama. The yellow- leafed nine-bark stands out brilliantly against its dark brother ‘Diablo’ like a torch in the dark. Black can also be a ‘blender’ color; put it between two colors that would clash if right next to each other and it provides enough of a visual barrier to make it work.
“Black” foliage isn’t really black. The various black leaves are very dark shades of purple and maroon. They have high concentrations of anthocyanins- the same pigments in blueberries that make them so healthful- that cover the green chlorophyll. These dark pigments come out best in full sun; in shade, the chlorophyll will increase so the plant can make enough energy. For design purposes, we call these dark colors ‘black’.
It used to be difficult to find dark plants, but dark foliage and flowers have become trendy lately, and more black plants are introduced each year. They even show up at the big box stores these days! To get a wide selection of dark plants, you’ll have to hunt, though. Garden centers will usually have a few and can frequently order in others if you ask. This list will give you some idea of what’s out there.
Smoke bush Cotinus “Royal Purple’; foliage turns dirty brown in late summer especially if not watered, turns bright orange in fall
Acer ‘Crimson King’- purple Norway maple
Japanese maple; many dark red ones; ‘Bloodgood’ easiest to find
‘Black Beauty’ elder
‘Diablo’ nine bark
Black mondo grass (will live in town and close to the lake; I can’t get it to live)
Ajuga ‘Chocolate Chip’; ‘Black Scallop’
Many dark heucheras (coral bells); a lot have silver overlay
Ligularia dentata (likes moisture; fabulous large dramatic leaves)
Lysimachia ciliata purpurea- spreads like crazy by root; keep in a pot
Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’- black blotch in leaf center and maroon flowers, spreads by seed like mad but easy to pull up
Geranium pretense ‘Midnight Reiter’- most G. pratenses spread fast, but I fight to keep this one alive
Aster ‘Lady in Black’- smallest aster I know; dainty black stems and leaves with tiny white flowers, slow to spread
Annuals and Tropicals:
‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine
Purple basil and perilla
Dark red lettuce ‘Merlot’ ‘Midnight Ruffles’
‘Black Prince’ snapdragon; has wonderful dark red flowers
Colocasia (elephant ears) ‘Black Magic’
Coleus ‘Black Dragon’ (red and black bicolor), ‘Black Prince’ (solid dark purple), ‘Palisandra’ solid dark maroon
New Zealand purple ricinus (castor bean)- extremely poisonous!
Amaranth ‘Intense Purple’- dramatic, spikey plant; will seed but not aggressively
I use most of these plants in my garden, but it is not overwhelmed with darkness. This is not the Addams family garden (although I would love that); these plants are just punctuation in the greens and the brighter colors. If you want to start small, try a ‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine in a container with a yellow leaved coleus, or just putting some ‘Black Prince’ snaps in with white petunias. I suspect you’ll come to the dark side.