When we’re young, we “learn our colors”; when we start gardening, we have to learn them all over again. Well, some of them are the basically the same: white is white, pretty much, and most of us are pretty confident in describing a flower or leaf as red, orange, yellow, or green. When we start getting into blue and purple, though–particularly in catalog descriptions–it’s practically a free-for-all. “Blue” can mean anything from grayish green to a sort of lavender-pink to the blue we learned as a primary color to a distinctly purplish blue. Our purple, too, is often very different from what non-gardeners might describe as that color: “Purple” flowers and foliage may be anything from deep red or burgundy to chocolate brown to a purple so dark it is practically black.
“Black” itself can be another adventure in ambiguity when it comes to picking plants. There’s such a mystique about black flowers, especially, that it’s clearly very tempting to include “black” in plant names and promotional hype, even when it’s nowhere near the truth, and to be heavy-handed when adjusting colors for catalog photos. (If you ever want to indulge in some fantasy, search for “black flower seeds” on eBay or Amazon; “Jettus Black bleeding heart” is especially amusing, as are some of the “black” roses.)
To be fair, lighting can make a big difference in the appearance of petals and leaves, but some simply aren’t black by any stretch of the imagination. One I fell for early on was ‘Black Prince’ snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus). The foliage can have a reddish blush in some conditions, and the flowers are a sultry red, but neither one qualifies as black.
The same goes for “black” sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus), such as ‘Black Adder’ and ‘Sooty’.
Centaureas offer a couple of closer-to-black options. The blooms of annual ‘Black Ball’ cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) are a very deep purple…
…and so are those of perennial ‘Black Sprite’ mountain bluet (Centaurea montana).
They’re interesting, but neither one of them blooms well for me, so I seldom grow them anymore. Annual pincushion flower (Scabiosa atropurpurea), also known as sweet scabious or mourning bride, is another that’s not especially generous with its flowers here, but I try it again every few years because it’s such a sumptuous color: velvety red in some sites and partnerships…
…and yes, practically black in others.
‘Queen of Night’ tulips tend to be a dusky red to wine-purple in bud…
…but in bloom, they’re such a deep purple that they could almost pass for black, especially from a distance.
Over the last few years, I’ve grown very fond of ‘Jams ‘N Jellies Blackberry’ rose periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). It’s on the deep purple side, not truly black, but it’s one of the best annuals I’ve found for a definitely dark color and abundant blooms through most of the growing season.
The floral pick for one of my five favorite blacks, though, has to go to the black pansies and violas (Viola). From classics like ‘Bowles Black’ and ‘Molly Sanderson’ to newer strains such as ‘Accord Black Beauty’ (also sold as ‘Black Accord’) and ‘Sorbet Black Delight’, they never disappoint, and I find them absolutely irresistible whenever I’m lucky enough to see plants for sale.
Super-dark leaves can also supply some outstanding near-black accents in the garden. There are some really good practically black heucheras (Heuchera), such as ‘Blackout’ and ‘Obsidian’…
…and bugbanes (Cimicifuga or Actaea), such as ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ and ‘Black Negligee’…
..and some deliciously dark coleus as well, such as ‘Dark Star’.
Some basils (Ocimum basilicum), such as ‘Osmin’ and ‘Red Rubin’, are so deep purple that they can read as black…
…as can the dark-leaved pennisetums (Pennisetum), such as ‘Purple Majesty’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and Vertigo fountain grass (P. purpureum ‘Tift 8’).
There are so many good dark-foliage plants, in fact, it’s tough to call out just a few. The purple-leaved sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas), though, such as ‘Blackie’ and ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’, are consistently near to the top of my list. (Of those two, ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ is my preference, because ‘Blackie’ tends to turn more greenish purple by fall.)
I persist in trying one or two in the ground each year, but the voles often devour the tubers in later summer, just as the plants are looking really good, leaving a big patch of wilted foliage. Growing sweet potato vines in containers works out much better for me.
I’d prefer that they didn’t flower, as the light purplish pink blooms tend to clash with the bright colors I like to pair with their practically black leaves. But when they do flower, they sometimes set seeds and may even self-sow.
Sometimes the seedlings are bronzy and sometimes they’re purplish, to the point of looking just as good as the named cultivars they came from.
Black-leaved cotton (Gossypium herbaceum ‘Nigrum’ or ‘Nigra’) is much harder to find, but have to count it as one of my top favorites for deeply dark foliage. The seedlings don’t look promising at first…
…but once they get lots of sun and heat, they produce an abundance of broad, basically black leaves.
The plants thrive in containers and in the ground, too, particularly if you give them rich soil and lots of water.
As with the sweet potato vines, you have to account for the flower color: on the cotton, the petals can be anywhere from soft to hot pink, depending on the temperature and amount of light.
Is it possible to like black plants and not try black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) at least once?
It’s short and relatively slow-growing, so it doesn’t make the same impact as many other dark-leaved plants, and the plants tend to be on the expensive side.
Even a few plants can look cool, though, and they can grow into a nice patch after a few years, so I like having them around. I find that the leaf color is richest in full sun; in shadier spots, it’s more of a purplish green.
I’m not too keen on the pale pinkish flowers, but they’re not around too long, and they mature into handsome black berries that enhance the effect of the foliage.
Speaking of black fruits… there are, of course, lots of edible and ornamental plants that produce dark berries, seeds, and seedheads: black currants (Ribes nigrum), blackberries (Rubus), blackberry lilies (Iris domestica), and many more.
The interesting challenge is hunting for black as a “something different” color, as in tomatoes. Over the years, I’ve been tempted by catalog listings of ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Black Krim’, and ‘Black Russian’, but from a color perspective, the reality was disappointing compared to their descriptions.
When I tried ‘Indigo Rose’, though, I was impressed: the fruits truly did appear practically black.
As they ripened, the shaded side of the fruits turned red, but that coloration was hardly visible at first glance. Granted, not everyone is comfortable eating black tomatoes, but they really were interesting from an ornamental perspective.
My top pick for black combines all the best features of my other favorites: coal-black leaves…
…purple flowers that work well with pretty much any other color companion…
…and then glossy black fruits.
(Yes, they eventually mature to red, but not until late in the growing season.)
It’s easy to start ‘Black Pearl’ pepper from seed, so you have a nice patch of it without spending a lot of money.
(As with the cotton, ‘Black Pearl’ seedlings can be more greenish than purple, but they color up quickly.)
But, it’s large enough that even one or two plants can make a nice impact in a container or border.
And, it’s even edible–if you like your peppers really hot–so it’s equally at home in ornamental and edible plantings.
So, that’s it for my five favorite black plants (plus a few extras). How about yours?