Black is Back


Papaver somniferum ‘Black Peony’

Lucy Summers, gardening columnist, TV script-writer and presenter, and director of a landscape design company recommends some darker-hued plants to brighten up our gardens:

I’m humming away to the 70’s mega-disco-hit by Belle Époque (that dates me doesn’t it?)  It’s putting me in real swaggering mode for a bête noir plant rave.

Mother Nature doesn’t do pure bible-black as per Dylan Thomas. She does something even more opulent. So for those of you who have not discovered the absolutely hedonistic pleasures of black-hued plants, then there are treats in store.

Urbanites somehow overlook the sheer brilliance of dark-coloured blooms and foliage. They seem to love structural plants, such as the much over-used cordylines and they’re not averse to stuffing pots and hanging baskets with colourful summer bedding. But they seem to shy away from the darker spectrum plants – and yet, dusky choices are so simpatico to the city. They blend superbly with all types of brickwork and architecture, and are enhanced by shadow and sudden shafts of sunlight.

Perhaps people think adding dark flower colour will intensify the city gloom. In fact, far from adding an ominous cast to the garden, dark-complexioned plants add a sense of dramatic elegance, still quiet or even a sense of joyful carnival. Black can be sleek, sophisticated, glamorous and, dare I say it – extrovert.  It’s the Marlene Dietrich of plant hues. So here are some suggestions for brooding marvels that are perfect for the town garden.

Let’s start with something idiot–proof and humble, yet alluring in its simplicity. Hardy geraniums are workmanlike, thrive on next to nothing and rarely give the gardener a moment’s unease. Geranium phaeum var. phaeum ‘Samobor’ (H. 80cm x w. 45cm) is simply brilliant for shadowy town gardens.  It clumps up pleasingly almost the moment you turn your back, creating pleasing leafy scalloped layers of mid-green foliage dusted with chocolate blotching. The foliage alone brightens up a gloomy corner, but there are abundant dainty sprays of purple-black flowers as pretty as chorus girls too.

geranium and agapanthus

Agapanthus ‘Black Magic’ and Geranium phaeum var. phaeum ‘Samobor’

City dwellers certainly love alliums but for some reason give agapanthus a miss.  Yet southern cities are for the most part frost-free and present a splendid opportunity to grow one of the most opulent of the African lilies, Agapanthus ‘Black Magic.’ (H.50cm x w. 80cm). With this plant, silky-smooth, upright stems explode into architectural, inky-black, fist-sized umbels of pendulous, tubular flowers that look magnificent against gold or silver foliage or teamed up with hot reds and oranges.

Staying with the dramatic, I can’t recommend Canna indica ‘Tropicanna Black’ highly enough (H: 70cm x H: 1.5m). Don’t panic because it’s not fully hardy and you’d rather be sipping a chilled glass of something faintly alcoholic than faffing around with a plant that’s possibly deemed a bit ‘needy.’ You can up your game, as urban gardens are perfect for growing some of the less hardy stuff. ‘C. Tropicanna Black has simply stunning foliage, with its huge coppery-plum leaves with exaggerated ribbing splayed in cocky attitude from tall, sturdy, darkest-maroon stems. These are topped with carnival-red flowers from summer to autumn. Books will tell you to lift the plants from the ground to overwinter. But in town gardens it’s just not practical to do this. So, in frost-free areas, you can just cut down the old leaves, leave the cannas in the ground and protect the crowns of the plants with a pegged-down insulation of their old leaves, straw and/or fleece.  There – job done. In spring, you just pull off the rotting leaf covering and you’re good to go for another year.

What a treat the black Oriental poppy has in store for adventurous gardeners! Growing this poppy from seed is a doddle, so don’t worry if you can’t source it at your garden centre. Either sow the seeds directly into the spot you want them to flower or plant them in deep root planting cells. True, seedlings hate being disrupted but if you take care to handle them as gently as possibly when you’re transplanting them into pots or the flower border, (minimizing any disturbance to the root ball,) they won’t be any the worse for the upheaval.  Papaver somniferum ‘Black Peony’ (H: 1.2m x 50cm) is a crackerjack of a poppy. Unopened poppy flowers form tight balls of tantalizing beauty, gently unfolding to reveal crumpled silken pleats of plum-black petals set off beautifully by ice-white, eye-lashed stamens.

Town gardens are always a bit tight on space, so it makes complete sense to use your vertical spaces. One little climbing beauty you might consider is Clematis ‘Romantika’  (H: 2.5m x W: 2m.)  If you’ve never had a pop at growing clematis (so many are put off at the thought of the dreaded clematis wilt) now is the time to take the plunge. Clematis wilt really only affects the large-flowered, early-flowering clematis, so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. In July to September you’ll be rewarded with spectacular indigo flowers reminiscent of a midnight sky, complemented by cheerful yellow centres. This clematis adds a dash of vibrant colour to walls and fences and camouflages unsightly blots on the town landscape.

clematis and ophiopogon

Clematis ‘Romantika’ and Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

It wouldn’t do to exclude the ever-popular ‘Black mondo’ grass.  Its Latin name is a bit of a mouthful for such a diminutive thing; Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (H: 20cm x 30cm.) Planted en-bloc, low-growing spidery tufts of soot-black matt linear leaves, arch in smart modernity at ground level. Be patient and let it establish and you’ll be rewarded by shiny, dark blue, spherical fruits and bells of tiny, pale mauve flowers, as subtle as a sigh.

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