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Growing with Phipps: Black foliage and plants can add drama to gardens, landscapes

Saturday, December 06, 2003

By Stephanie Lonsinger , Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Black adds another dimension to gardening. How you use plants with dark foliage or almost black flowers determines the look you get -- whimsical, Goth, exotic or formal.

If you're unsure how to effectively introduce black into your landscape, create an attention-getting container using one black plant to enliven tried-and-true combinations. Black contrasts boldly with pastels, silver, chartreuse and hot colors.

Moisture-loving Colocasias "Black Magic" and "Illustris" (black with green veins) will rise 4 to 5 feet in large containers, becoming dramatic centerpieces with their cascading 2-foot-long leaves. Phipps planted these Colocasias in the front beds this summer among palms and dinosaurs.

Their size and color make these large leaves striking in any setting, but they fit especially well with other tropical plants (or lend a tropical air to an otherwise temperate garden). Kids in particular gravitate toward the weird and wonderful. Tropical plants used as annuals will amaze and delight them and give you a chance to try something new.

Tender "Burgundy Giant" and "Rubrum" fountain grasses (Pennisetum setaceum) also give lift to container plantings with their dark-burgundy blades. "Burgundy Giant" is more upright. "Rubrum" arches in a fountain shape, and its smoky purple plumes can be used as cut flowers. Another possibility is the 2002 All-America Selections winner ornamental millet "Purple Majesty" (Pennisetum glaucum), which resembles a 4-foot cornstalk.

You can also find smaller black plants to help other selections stand out. "Blackie" sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) and a newer cultivar, "Black Heart," are less well-known than the chartreuse "Margarite" and will create 8- to 10-inch mounding cascades of purple-black color. Coleus cultivars deserve to be popular for their colored foliage, and "Dark Star," "Palisandra" and "Black Magic" will show off their companions.

Many gardeners already welcome black into their gardens with one of this area's sunny perennial favorites, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida "Goldsturm"). It would be difficult to find something blacker than its seed cones. But the deep coppery-purple leaves of Cimicifuga racemosa "Black Beauty," the native snakeroot, is an exotic but hardy perennial for moist shade. In the fall, 6-foot flower stems bearing foot-long bottlebrushes of creamy white fragrant flowers rise from the dark mound of leaves.

Gardeners who use double- or triple-shredded hardwood mulch for its dark brown, almost-black color to contrast with lush green foliage may be interested in the brand-new "Black Scallop" and "Mahogany" Ajuga reptans. While not widely available yet, these dark bugleweeds may one day function as a "living mulch" in a full- to part-sun bed.

The purple-black leaves of the black passion plant (Gynura bicolor) are deeply notched and variegated with deep green veins. The leafy mound reaches 12-18 inches tall and 2-3 feet wide. Butterflies love the pumpkin-orange flowers that emerge in purple bracts from their willowy stems, but you may not like their faint, strange smell in a tight space, so ensure ample air circulation.

Zingiber "Midnight" is an ornamental ginger with glossy rich brown foliage, 2-foot-tall burgundy-brown stems and yellow flowers. Bloodleaf (Iresine lindenii) will erect a 30- to 36-inch column of highly reflective wine-dark foliage to serve as a backdrop for other sun-loving plants. Again, your choice of plants will determine whether black creates contrast, harmonizes with or intensifies other colors.

Bulbs and annuals also let you experiment with black in established garden designs without making a long-term commitment. Paired with white (or pale pink), black tulips such as "Queen of Night" and a double sport of that called "Black Hero" let you create a striking and elegant composition. When cool-season pansies appear in garden centers, you might find solid black and pumpkin orange flowers or buy the seeds for a Jack O'Lantern Mix and grow your own Halloween decorations.

Demand for black cultivars of familiar plants is growing, and most of these suggested plants can be purchased through plant catalogs or garden centers. For tropical selections and the newest cultivars, check out Singing Springs Nursery (www.singingspringsnursery.com) and Pleasant View Gardens (www. pvg.com).


This is one of a series of periodic columns by staff members of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Stephanie Lonsinger is a grower for Phipps.

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