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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Now & Then

Plant Life
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Trifolium 'Dark Dancer' bears lucky four leaves of maroon-black with green edging. Its flowerheads are white.
Dusky, Not Dreary
In the dark about using black? Help is here

Near-black and deepest purple used to be the scarcest of garden colors, hence the fascination. Now black flowers and foliage seem to be everywhere. Even violas, hellebores, dahlias and iris come in maroon or purple so dark they look black in some lights. The book "Black Magic and Purple Passion," by British black-plant maven Karen Platt, just came out in an expanded edition, and she created a garden of her favorite plants for February's Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle.

In the introduction to Platt's book, she says, "Black is the most unusual, astonishing colour in the garden, and I aim to show that it is the easiest colour to incorporate in the garden in any quantity." Her show garden was filled with beautiful plants, all in unremittingly inky tones. While I admired the plants individually, I couldn't look at the garden without a sinking feeling like I'd just lost my best friend. I tried to focus on the touches of lime green and the reddish edges on some of the succulents. But the contrasting tones, while offering relief, didn't enliven the shadowy colors enough to prevent an overall gloom. That was surprising because Platt is right that these are captivating plants with great garden potential. But I'm afraid she's wrong about how easy they are to use. The question becomes how to go for black's showiness without taking on its dreariness.

I called up some garden designers adept at color harmonies and found that while each acknowledged the difficulties with black in the garden — especially in our less-than-sunny climate — they all had found ways to make good use of its potential for drama. Certainly texture becomes important. Think of the difference between the sharp, glossy shine of obsidian and the soft, dusty quality of soot. But there are other considerations.
Illustration Now In Bloom
If chartreuse is the color of the April garden, Bowles' golden grass (Milium effusum 'Aureum') doubles the effect, its glowing clumps a seeming reflection of the new leaves emerging on trees and shrubs. A short (to 18 inches) grass that starts out yellow and turns green as summer progresses, it thrives in light shade and moist soil, obligingly seeding itself about. In late spring to midsummer, the grass is topped off with delicate golden spikelets of bloom. Its pale color is a perfect foil for early-blooming black plants such as 'Queen of the Night' tulips or Primula 'Garnet.'
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Lorene Edwards of Fremont Gardens suggests that backlighting from the sun will bring out the depths of color in dark flowers like hellebores and chocolate cosmos. High-contrast combinations are most effective, such as black mondo grass emerging through an underplanting of golden or variegated baby tears for impact without using a single flower. Summer annuals can be saved from a carnival effect by toning down with dusky coleus ('Merlot' is the darkest of the dark) or the black sweet-potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie').

Designer Kevin Harvey points out that black can end up blending right into the soil, so he uses bright green, creamy colors or orange to make it show up. He might plant a red potentilla with dark foliage plants, or surround the apricot Crocosmia 'Solfatare' with the ebony blades of black mondo grass. He most often uses black plants in containers to be admired up close rather than lost out in the landscape.

Supreme colorists Charles Price and Glenn Withey have found chartreuse, white and yellow to be effective contrasts to black, but suggest that contrasts need not come solely from plant combinations. Dark plants arrayed against a pale-colored house or wall create vibrancy. When planted in the distance, black-foliage plants such as purple-leafed plums or the lacy Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing' make black holes in the border. Withey and Price suggest using this less-than-desirable characteristic to advantage by planting something much lighter, like a white-flowering dogwood, in the foreground to both highlight the dogwood and fool the perspective.

To make it even easier, a glance through the 1,350 dark plants in Platt's book shows that Mother Nature (and the hybridizers) have obligingly helped out by creating a number of dark plants that carry their own color contrasts, in flowers and variegations.

To Find More

A wide assortment of black plants, including all those in Karen Platt's show garden, are distributed by the marketing company Proven Winners. To find local retailers, check out their Web site:

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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