Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Lure of the Darkside

This is garden art that belongs in a horror film. 

I came across this bronze statue of a small child gazing down into the murky depths of a pond last summer. The large, geometric pond was not deep, but the black liner gave it an ominous, dare I say sinister, quality. 

Despite my rather melodramatic opening, this is not a blog post that means to suggest the likelihood of a diabolical side to gardening. With the possible exception of the creepy garden art, I like to think that gardening is a "force" for good in the world.

In this instance, there is no dark arts or science fiction involved - the "dark" I am talking about here are deep, rich colors. Bold colors from eggplant to burgundy to black are the opposite of whisy-washy. They're dramatic. 

I've noticed that many experienced gardeners use strong colors to add a sophistication to their plantings. The repetition of boldly colored foliage is just one trick they use to breakup a scene that would otherwise be dominantly green. 

I am going to begin with a series of wide shots. In each there is a pleasing balance of opposites - the yin and yang of light and dark colors.

Jacquie's garden in Darthmouth, N.S.

Garden Canadensis in Milton, Ontario

The garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, Ontario

Rich colors make bright colors pop in contrast. 

Deep colors can be found in foliage, stems and flowers. Here are just a few 
examples in each category:

The garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, Ontario

At the foot of this pink Phlox is the purplish-black foliage of Bugleweed, Ajuga. Here is a reference to a variety of Ajuga you might want to consider for your own garden:

Ajuga reptans 'Chocolate Chip': has narrow, brownish-green foliage and showy spikes of blue flowers in June. This variety is not as quick to spread as some Bugleweeds. Part to full shade. It will grow in a variety of soil types , but likes moist conditions. Height: 10-15 cm (4-6 inches), Spread 30-45 cm (12-18 inches) USDA Zones: 3-9.

This is a plant I added to my garden last summer. It is supposed to be short-lived in zones 5 and 6, so fingers crossed it makes it through this record breaking February weather. 

Wood Spurge 'Purpurea', Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea': has greyish-purple-green foliage with chartreuse flower clusters in spring. It likes 3-6 hours of morning or afternoon sun. Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea' will grow a variety of soil types and can take everything from moist to dry conditions. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA Zones: 5-9.

The garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, Ontario

Not the best picture, but hopefully good enough for you to see the black magic of this Ligularia. 

Ligularia 'Britt Marie Crawford': is a plant you grow for the foliage and not the flowers. This Ligularia forms a large clump of mahogany leaves with golden-orange flowers in mid-summer. Slugs can be an issue. Part shade to full shade in warm regions. Moist soil is essential. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 80-90 cm ( 31-35 inches). USDA Zones:3-9.

There are any number of Heuchera with dark foliage that you can choose from.  Some Heuchera, like the Heuchera 'Silver Scroll' on the left, are an interesting combination of frosted leaf surfaces with dark undersides and flower stems.

For late summer consider any number of the Sedums with deep reddish-green foliage. Here are just a few of the possibilities: Autumn Stonecrop Sedum 'Chocolate Drop', Sedum 'Purple Emperor' and Sedum 'Xenox'.

The garden of Marion Jarvie, Thornhill, Ontario

I also wanted to include a few tender perennials like this Canna Lily which must be lifted from the garden each fall. This may seem like a lot of bother, but when you consider how striking they are in a late summer garden, they are more than worth the effort. 

Dahlias are another plant whose tubers must be lifted in fall. There are a good number of cultivars to choose from that have rich, purply-black foliage. 
Here are just two: Dahlia 'Mystic Illusion' has nearly-black foliage with yellow flowers. Dahlia 'Happy Single Wink' has a single magenta flowers and striking black foliage .

Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop' in the garden of Marion Jarvie

One final tender plant which I spotted in Marion Jarvie's garden: Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop'. 
In Zone 6, this plant is unusual enough to make it a conversation piece. Aeonium must be lifted in early fall and brought in from the cold to be wintered indoors.

Black Tree Aeonium, Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop': is a winter-blooming succulent with rosettes of black leaves. It requires full sun and well-drained soil. Height: 60 cm -1.8 m (24 inches to 6 ft), Spread: 30-38 cm (12-15 inches) USDA Zones 9-11.

Public Garden, Guelph ON

Coleus famously comes in some pretty wacky color combinations like this 
one in the lower righthand corner.

Templin Garden, Fergus Ontario

But if you search around you may be lucky to find one of the marvellous varieties 
that are a deep smoky-plum.

Just a few examples of plants with dark stems. This Maidenhair Fern has thin black stems.

Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum pedatum: has arching black stems and fans of green leaflets. The foliage is great in cut flower arrangements. These ferns like rich, moist soil. You may find that they take several years to reach a mature size. Height: 30-60 cm (12-23 inches), Spread: 30-60 cm (12-23 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.

Private garden near Uxbridge, ON

Combing dark stems and foliage is Penstemon 'Dark Towers': Height: 60-90 cm, Spread: 45-60 cm. Full sun. Normal, sandy or clay soil are fine. Average to dry conditions. Zones: USDA 3-9

Jacquie's garden in Darthmouth, N.S.

Ligularia 'The Rocket': Ligularia like moist conditions. 'The Rocket' forms a large clump of jagged edged leaves. Purplish-black stems and yellow flowers appear mid-summer. Ligularia is one perennial that is quite happy in clay. Height: 120-180 cm (47-70 inches), Spread: 80-90 cm (31-35 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

To wrap-up this post, I offer you several types of flowers that have dark flowers.

Columbine: The Columbine, Aquilegia Ancolie (shown above) has eggplant colored flowers. Cultivar Aquilegia 'Black Barlow' has is a double, plum-purple flowers.

Bearded Irises come in a wide range of colors including purples, plums, inky-blues and black.

Hellebores can also be found in shades of wine-red, plum, burgundy and black.

Geranium phaeum 'Samobor' and Geranium phaeum 'Mourning Widow' (above) both have deep plum-wine colored flowers.

Hollyhocks (seen at the bottom of the post) are a biennial whose flowers come in a range of colors including black and burgundy.

As to annuals, how about some black Petunias?


Have your say:  

Are they black flowers dramatic or just not your thing?

Do you know of some plants you'd like to recommend with dark flowers, stems or foliage?


  1. I find dark and bronze foliage and flowers very hard to fit into colour schemes and found your pictures very encouraging. Last year whilst on holiday I saw a wonderful window box full of dark coleus, variegated geranium leaves and yellow and black striped petunias and I have to say it looked stunning. I will have to be more adventurous I think.

  2. Look beautiful flowers with dark leaves of green. Regards.

  3. I'm loving the dark side! Those dahlias with the dark foliage are gorgeous! Really anything with a dramatic accent as of late has been luring me in! Thanks for this post Jennifer....I will be bookmarking several of these plants! Happy day you! Nicole xo

  4. How cheerful your pictures look, especially at this time of the year.
    Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea' has survived for many years for me. I don't think you will have problems with it.
    I will look for some of these tall dark sedums. They must create a beautiful contrast.

  5. I do agree with you when you say "gardening is a "force" for good in the world."

    Gardens and all their varied colours bring so much joy. Lovely pictures, thanks.

    All the best Jan

  6. Great post, a real keeper. When I was at Hidcote the play of dark and light was very noticeable. the whole garden was planted so some of the "rooms" were light and some dark either due to planting or peaking at different times of the year. Black Beauty Elderberry Sambucus nigra has been on my list for a while for its dark leaves.

  7. I love the so-called "black" iris and tulips, but the true black pansies look like they're just for mourning or Halloween. Almost as creepy as the zombie child staring into the black pool.

    You provided many great examples of beautiful and dramatic plants.

  8. Hi, Jennifer!
    I love koleus in Templin Garden. This combination of dark red and bright green is stunning. All photos are beautiful, as if I would walk in summer.

  9. Great post, Jennifer! I must admit to being a bit frightened of the boy statue - I imagine myself thinking there was someone in my garden in the middle of the night.
    You've mentioned a number of my favourite dark plants - the penstemon is one of my favourites.

  10. Just as decorators suggest that you have at least one black item in each room, the garden needs the depth of deeper colors for contrast. I use Lorapetulum in the dark purple, the ruby barberry, and contrast with the chartreuse barberry, spireas. You've done a great job of showing how to plant for depth and interest.

  11. I'm not sure if an almost black flower is that appealing to me, but I definitely like the contrast of variegated and dark foliage. I've finally started adding dark leaved plants to my garden and have many listed here. I don't know why it took so long! Coleus grows like mad here and there are so many varieties available. In my garden 'Dark Towers' actually does fine with a bit of afternoon shade. The statue in the top photo is pretty creepy!

  12. I love dark foliage and flowers, especially when combined with anything smokey orange. Once again, your photos are gorgeous.

  13. I've never been a big fan of dark flowers like the almost black petunias. But as I looked at each photo here, I thought, yes, that dark foliage or stems really makes a nice contrast. I also realized I do have some darker plants, such as different types of heucheras and coleus. For me, they are more of a way to put the spotlight on the bright greens and chartreuses. I will say one of my favorite tulips in the spring is the nearly black 'Queen of the Night', but I have it paired with white tulips. Alone, I wouldn't like the black tulips very well, but the black/white combo looks so elegant! The only element of elegance in my chaotic cottage garden, I might add:)

  14. You really captured quite a collection that remind me to add more contrast in my gardens...well done! And stunning views.

  15. As always you have lots of really good photos to show us. I like strong, bold colours in the garden, and I especially like dark leaved plants. I adore heucheras and dahlias. But it is all about composition and how it’s put together, making good contrast and your photos are really showing them all to their best :-)

  16. Hello Jenifer girl ! ... I LOVE this post !! .. At first I thought you were going to talk about light values .. shade plantings ... but wow! on all of these "dark side" plants ... I am a real fan of them and try to incorporate dark bold colours every few feet of the garden for that "pop" affect.
    I did a black petunia mixed with white annual euphorbia in pots last year and called them my "tuxedo plantings" ... there is so much you can do with this type of theme .. I am a huge fan of it!
    Thanks for such a great post on the dark side plants : )

  17. You took us to some wonderful gardens here, Jennifer. Beautiful examples of how to use dark plants in the landscape. Very inspiring! P. x

  18. beautiful!! I got so many ideas from this garden, Thanks Jennifer!

  19. Those first two Ontario garden photos would have had me on my knees, had I not already been lying down. I can't believe I still have never grown Maiden Hair fern. I'm in Oregon, for crying out loud. The fern capital of the world. Ligularia is on my must have list this year. That and Cimicifuga, another that offers dark leaves. I've coveted them for long enough. It's time. Again with the broken record, I absolutely love your posts.


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