Black for Garden Drama

Late August brings us into the dog days of summer, and there’s nothing that cures a dog day like a dose of drama. That’s why I reserved this month for BLACK! (And thanks to a little summer travel, I’m just getting in under the August wire.)

Black flowers & leaves-The Paintbox Garden

Of course, no plant leaf or flower is completely black. Inspected closely, there is always green (for photosynthesis) or dark red, purple or deep bronze underlying the apparent dark floral pigments. But there’s a rich roster of plants that can be called upon to inject a little black magic into the garden, whether it’s with dark-as-night foliage or betwitchingly black blossoms. And for my money, no one offers up the design potential of black like Vancouver’s Van Dusen Botanical Garden. Here’s their black and gold border, with barberries, colocasias, sedums, eucomis and black mondo grass, to name just a few. Isn’t it lovely?  And doesn’t that dark foliage look spectacular paired with chartreuse?

Black Border-Van Dusen Gardens

Here’s a closer look at a portion of Van Dusen’s wonderful border, with a black taro, ‘Black Tropicanna’ canna and ‘Brunette’ snakeroot (Actaea racemosa ‘Brunette’).


Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) is one of the darkest ‘black’ leafed plants, and one of the most dramatic for pairing with bright colours.  I love the way Victoria’s Horticulture Centre of the Pacific uses it in combination with Sedum ruprestre ‘Angelina’, seen below in spring when it’s still gold.

HCP-Ophiopogon 'Nigrescens' & Sedum 'Angelina'

Here’s how it looks at HCP with golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’).

HCP-Ophiopogon & Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'

At gorgeous Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, Pennsylvania, the Japanese Garden employs Japanese black mondo grass as a dark edging under bamboo ‘fencing’.

Chanticleer-Ophiopogon & Aruncus-Asian Woods

Other dark, grass-like plants include fountain grass, particularly Pennisetum ‘Princess Caroline’ and ‘Vertigo’, below, shown with orange zinnias at New York’s Conservatory Garden in Central Park.

Conservatory Garden-Zinnia & Pennisetum 'Vertigo'

And here is Pennisetum ‘Princess Caroline’ doubling down on black with the ornamental pepper Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’, a fabulous black annual.

Capsicum 'Black Pearl' & Pennisetum 'Princess Caroline'

Black and red look spectacular together, too, as demonstrated by Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’ paired with annual red Salvia splendens.

Capsicum 'Black Pearl' & Salvia2

The best spring bulb for injecting a little early-season black is Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’. I love this one, and use it liberally in my own spring garden. Here it is at Toronto’s Casa Loma bringing depth to citrus colours….

Tulipa ''Queen of Night' & yelllow-orange tulips

…. and at Toronto’s Spadina House as a pretty partner to pink….

Tulipa 'Queen of Night' & 'Black Diamond'

…. and echoing the dark foliage of ‘Diabolo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Sambucus & Tulipa 'Queen of Night'

Shortly after the tulip season comes columbine season, and there’s nothing more dramatic than Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Black Barlow’.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Black Barlow'2

One of my favourite dark-leafed shrubs is Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’), seen below with a pink Phlox paniculata at Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon.

Northwest Nursery-Eugene-Sambucus&Phlox

For some reason, annual sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) lends itself genetically to black colouration. Here is ‘Ace of Spades’ with yellow rieger begonias in Toronto gardener Shari Ezyk’s lovely urn.

Shari Ezyk-Urn with Begonias & Ipomoea batatas 'Ace of Spades'

And adding a dark carpet to sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) at the Conservatory Garden, in New York.

Ipomoea & Chasmanthium

This is the fancy-leafed ‘Blackie’, with ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds at Toronto Botanical.

Ipomoea & Tagetes

Another species that has benefited ‘darkly’ from plant breeding is tropical taro or elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta). Here we see the big leaves of  ‘Royal Hawaiian Black Coral’ exploding with a canna lily out of a sea of chartreuse foliage at Montreal Botanical Garden.

Montreal Botanical-Colocasia esculenta 'Royal Hawaiian Black Coral'

Black taros are also used beautifully with other tropicals at Nancy Goodwin’s Montrose Garden in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Montrose-Black Taro1

There are some good black petunias, including yellow-striped ‘Black Velvet’.

Petunia 'Black Velvet'

Sometimes we forget that seedheads can have visual impact in a late-season garden, especially when they’re as dark as Rudbeckia maxima, shown in front of Calamagrostis acutiflora at Wave Hill in the Bronx.

Black Seedheads-Rudbeckia maxima

Purple coneflower has dark seedheads, too. Here it is behind the golden fall foliage of Amsonia tabernaemontana in autumn.

Black Seedheads-Echinacea & Amsonia

And don’t forget the zingy seedhead possibilities of blackeyed susans!

Black Seedheads-Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'

We can also add black with furnishings, of course. Here’s a modern black steel fence I fell in love with at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York.

Black Garden Fence-Corning Museum of Glass

And this black-stained garden arch is the height of design sophistication (as are black fences).

Black Garden Arch

Black chairs? What about using some black stain and artistic flourish to turn a Muskoka (Adirondack) chair into a work of art, as my artist son Jon Davis did for me many years ago.

Chairs-Muskoka-Adirondack Style

Even a simple black bistro chair can up the dark drama quotient, especially if it’s in renowned garden guru Tom Hobb’s former Vancouver garden.

Chair-Tom Hobbs

In the black accessories department, you can’t go wrong with a simple black obelisk, especially when it chums with a pink daylily.

Black Iron Obelisk

Moving to containers, black adds a dollop of sophistication via this beautiful trio of planters at Toronto Botanical Garden. No other colour would work as well with the flamenco-red flowers and foliage, all designed by horticulturist Paul Zammit.

Toronto Botanical Gardes-Cordyline-Acalypha-Geranium-Ipomoea

I’ve written about Paul’s creative container designs before, but he does have a special skill for knowing just what to use, like these kitchen herbs (parsley, sage), grasses (carex, hakonechloa) and orange calibrachoas in a run of basic black iron window boxes.

Toronto Botanical Garden- Containers

I’ll finish my contemplation of black in the garden with containers from my favourite public garden, Chanticleer. Here’s a lovely black urn that repeats the black-red theme of some of the photos above, with red calibrachoa. Stunning, isn’t it?

Pot-Chanticleer-Callibrachoa 'Alpha Kona Dark Red' & Melilanthus major (1)

And finally, a half-dozen statuesque black planters that are as much about defining space in this Chanticleer garden, as they are containing plants.

Chanticleer-Black Pots on Lawn