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The dark side of the garden

PUBLISHED: 11:21 17 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:54 20 February 2013

Black and white foliage planting: Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ with Phormium ‘Dark Delight’, agapanthus, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, Heuchera ‘Obsidian’. Growing Together, designer Fiona Stephenson, Hampton Court Flower Show.

Black and white foliage planting: Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ with Phormium ‘Dark Delight’, agapanthus, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, Heuchera ‘Obsidian’. Growing Together, designer Fiona Stephenson, Hampton Court Flower Show.

The most unlikely colour for a garden, black can be one of its most dramatic elements. In the last of our series in Colour in the Garden, Anne Green-Armytage explores the dark side.

The dark side of the garden



The most unlikely colour for a garden, black can be one of its most dramatic elements. In the last of our series on Colour in the Garden, Anne Green-Armytage explores the dark side.

Black is the colour of darkness. It smacks of evil spells and sinister forces, bad things lurking in the shadows. But black is also dramatic and sophisticated: think of the little black cocktail dress. In fact, black is one of the easiest colours to wear, complementing and heightening other colours. This extends to the garden: used on its own in a shady corner, black is liable to disappear, but contrast it in a prominent place with pink or orange and the effect is dramatic.




The most obvious colour combination is black and white. I saw a really striking planting of the white-variegated dogwood Cornus alternifolia Argentea, underplanted with Phormium Dark Delight at Hampton Court Flower Show a couple of years ago. The dogwood foliage shone out from the dark spikiness of the phormiums and the effect was further enhanced by an edging of silvery-leafed Brunnera Jack Frost and one of the darkest heucheras, H. Obsidian.




On a slightly less ambitious scale, the evergreen (I should say everblack) foliage plant Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens will bring contrast to a border planting of snowdrops. Although the name is a mouthful, it does give a clue to its colour: plants with nigra or nigre or even niger in their names indicate black somewhere on the plant. Think of the black bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, or our native elderberry Sambucus nigra. Occasionally this can be misleading: the Christmas rose Helleborus niger has pure white flowers, the niger referring to the colour of its roots.
Atro is another indicator, meaning tending towards black. The tender perennial Aeonium arboreum Atropurpureum is a good example, with dramatic purplish-black rosettes made blacker in full sun. The reason for this is that the plant is under stress from the sunlight; the foliage turns almost completely green while overwintered on an inside windowsill, but it always regains its colour the following season. Zwartkop is the most popular cultivar, the name deriving from the German Schwarz kopf or black head. Although it looks exotic and difficult, the plant is easy to propagate just take off the head and plunge it into some gritty compost. It will grow away to create a new plant and the main plant will branch and produce two more heads, with which you can repeat the process the following year. Once youve built up a stock you can use it as summer bedding, enlivening marigolds or low-growing busy lizzies.

Another of my favourite dark foliage plants is the black form of cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing. Its filigree leaves emerge in spring alongside the fresh green of geranium and alchemilla, creating contrast in shape as well as colour. Similarly, the heart-shaped foliage of Ligularia Desdemona, a good bog or marginal plant with dark, black-purple leaves topped with bright narrow-rayed orange daisies in summer.




Truly black flowers are few and far between. Most have a tinge of purple or red in them, but we must forgive this as they nevertheless make a great contribution to our gardens. First to surface are the hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus), which have many colour forms due to their promiscuous cross-fertilisation. These include slate grey and darkest plum, these shady tones made striking by the contrast with their boss of creamy stamens. Then comes Akebia quinata, the chocolate vine, with delicate, velvety flowers held on a tangle of fresh green foliage which will scramble up to 9m, given a sheltered spot. This is followed in summer by the black forms of iris and scabious and the ever-popular chocolate-scented cosmos, C. atrosanguineus. (I am clearly in a gardening minority as I personally dont rate this plant. I love chocolate but I really dont want to be reminded of it while Im weeding. Perhaps Im just too easily tempted.)


In the autumn and winter it is stems and berries which draw our attention. The black bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, is both bold and elegant, although it does need full sun and a couple of years maturity for its culms to colour well they start off green and gradually darken. Other dark-stemmed plants include Hydrangea macrophylla Nigra and the dogwood Cornus alba Kesselringii.




Blackberries are welcome in our hedgerows and gardens less for their glossy appearance than for their great taste, with or without apples (see Septembers Offshoots). Garden varieties have had their thorns bred out for ease of picking hence Oregon Thornless and Thornfree, although Loch Ness is also thornless and has a longer fruiting season, from August to the first frosts. These varieties are particularly useful if youre growing them over an arch or gateway where people will be brushing past.




Our native privet (Ligustrum vulgare) has black berries, but as this plant is mostly trimmed back as hedging, the fruit seldom has a chance to form. Not so the ivy (Hedera helix) which makes clusters of matt black fruit on its mature stems in late winter and early spring. This makes it an especially valuable food source for birds at this challenging time of year, that alone making it deserving of a place in our gardens.

What to Grow: black
Flowers
Helleborus x hybridus, hellebore or Lenten rose, black forms. Buy them in flower.
Akebia quinata, chocolate vine.
Scabiosa atropurpurea Chile Black and S. atropurpurea Ace of Spades.
Bearded irises, including Iris Paint it Black, Night Ruler and Black Tie Affair. Also, Iris chrysographes Black Knight. This enjoys damp conditions, while the bearded varieties need full sun.
Viola Bowles Black.
Aquilegia vulgaris William Guiness, also known as Magpie great black-and-white contrast on one flower.
Cosmos atrosanguineus, the chocolate cosmos.
Alcea rosea Nigra, black form of hollyhock.


Foliage
Aeonium arboreum Atropurpureum, A. Zwartkop.
Phormium Dark Delight.
Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing.
Heuchera Obsidian.
Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens.
Ligularia Desdemona.
Sambucus nigra Guincho Purple, dark-leaved elder.


Stems
Phyllostachys nigra, black bamboo.
Hydrangea macrophylla Nigra.
Cornus alba Kesselringii.


Berries
Sambucus nigra, elderberry.
Fatsia japonica, false castor-oil plant.
Hedera helix, ivy.
Rubus fruticosus, blackberry. Thornless cultivars include Loch Ness, Chester, Oregon Thornless and Thornfree.

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