Catherine StewartFoul funereal flowers and foliage

Black flowers and foliage are ugly. Even worse, they’re usually not a true black but what I’d call ‘cack black’ – a dark blacky-purple-brown colour that looks like an old scab. Why on earth any plant breeder chooses to make more of the things and flog them off to the faddish gardening public is beyond me. They’re just plain horrible but I suppose the novelty value sells a few plants. But what happens when you get them home? Where do you place such bug uglies?

Black viola Photo kthread

Black viola Photo kthread

Black bat flower Photo by Just chaos

Black bat flower Photo by Just chaos

I love to cruise around nurseries and check out anything new that’s hit the stands since I last…well… cruised around. What always surprises me is seeing someone buying a black violet or black mondo, which just look like you’ve bought something after it died, rather than waiting until you forget to water it next week. They’re just so depressing. Funereal. Gothic. Freakish. Even the popular and occasionally useful Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’ leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

Black iris

Black iris

But where do these buyers of grief and ghastliness plant them when they get them home? Anywhere these black foliage plants are put, they make it look like you’ve just created a black hole that’s trying to suck in the rest of your garden, and those black flowers are like empty, staring zombie eyes.

black pansies Photo wakanmuri

I’m fine with dark flowers and foliage that have true colour, like an intense wine-red or a rich, imperial purple. I love my Strobilanthes dyerianus to bits. Deep tones can bring drama to lots of colour combinations in a garden. What I really don’t like are those super dark black-black flowers and foliage. I know they’re not really black in the true sense but they may as well be.

And with what colours do they go? Red, perhaps, at a pinch. Or does that just look like ghoulish blood + death? And what a cruel thing to do to sunny, vibrant ‘look at me’ red, I say. Blue? Shudder. How about with yellow? I guess you could create your own faux sunlight and shadow or ‘bee’ garden. Pink? Urgh – black makes even hot pink look sickly. With white perhaps? Like a sort of overgrown keyboard or garden dalmatian. Orange…yes maybe my beloved orange has got just enough fire to prop up these irksome, inky invaders.

Black dahlia with lime green

Black dahlia with lime green

There’s just one combination I’ve seen that I think zings – black with lime green. In very small amounts.

I’ve searched the world so that you can have a strong, protective list to take with you next time you visit your local nursery wherever that may be, so you’ll know what NOT to buy:

Words to ring warning bells: black, raven, night, velvet, midnight, dark, pitch

Black mondo makes a hole in the ground

Black mondo makes a hole in the ground. Looks a bit like the paving is broken, doesn’t it?

Black hollyhock Photo by ms.Tea

Black hollyhock Photo by ms.Tea

Black flowers to avoid: viola and pansy, Calla ‘Black Pearl’ ‘Black Crusader’ and ‘Black Star’, bat orchid, tulip, cosmos, hollyhock, Iris ‘Here Comes the Night’ and ‘Old Black Magic’, dahlia, hellebores like Helleborus ‘Black Diamond’ and ‘Midnight Ruffles’, ‘Landini’ Asiatic Lily, Rudbeckia occidentalis ‘Green Wizard’, Fritillaria persica, Papaver ‘Black Peony’, Hyacinthus ‘Dark Dimension’, Scabiosa ‘Black Night’, Aquilegia ‘Black Barlow’, Caralluna russelliana. And anything called ‘Queen of the Night’ that doesn’t actually flower at night.

Black dahlia Photo quinn.anya

Black dahlia Photo quinn.anya

Black tulip photo Lisa J G

Black tulip photo Lisa J G

Black ipomaea

Black ipomaea

Black foliage from which to run a mile: Anything with the word ‘black’ in its name, especially associated with a certain horse (as if!), purple basil, black mondo grass, Heuchera x ‘Obsidian’ and Heuchera ‘Black Beauty Coral Bells’, Ligularia ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’ (the poor woman – what a tribute!).

Black sambucus Photo by wallygrom. Urgh. The pale pink flowers just make it even WORSE

Black sambucus Photo by wallygrom. Urgh. The pale pink flowers just make it even WORSE

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’, various black elephants ear, Begonia ‘Black Velvet’, Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’, Capsicum annum ‘Black Pearl’, Aeonium ‘Schwatzkopf’, various Canna, Ipomaea batata ‘Blackie’, Sedum ‘Black Beauty’, Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’, Bromeliads Neoregelia ‘Pitch Black’, Aechmea ‘Back Jack’.

Aeonium 'Schwatzkopf'

Aeonium ‘Schwatzkopf’

Black Plants

And if you want  a longer list of icky black plants to avoid, there’s this very helpful book.

You have been warned.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

27 thoughts on “Foul funereal flowers and foliage

  1. helen mckerral on said:

    Bwahahaha! I shall have to hide my pot of black Sambucus next time you visit! But alas, the black mondo is in the ground 😉

    • Don’t worry about the sambucus. I’ll just think it’s a lurking shadow

  2. James Beattie on said:

    I’ve always thought, wherever one considers a black plant looks ‘good’, a small sculpture of some kind would look infinitely better.

    I’m relieved to know there’s someone else who has an unease with new-fangled black-chic plants!

    Well-played, Catherine Stewart.

    • But not a black sculpture. Which I think have a similar effect!

  3. I’m with you on the black and lime green. Best planting of black mondo I ever saw was underplanted (yes – underplanted. Quite an acheivement with something as low as mondo) that golden (more often lime) creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’).

    • Yes, I guess I could come at that. In small doses. On some days. Occasionally.

  4. Adele on said:

    Oh, come on, Catherine… Every lady (that is every garden) occasionally needs a Little Black Dress, for elegance. Sure, you wouldn’t wear it with trainers. I feel the awkwardness of black plants in some of the photos comes from the fact that they have not been given a worthy company…

    • Nice try Adele but I think black plants are Victorian widow’s weeds, not LBDs. And all black plant lovers can rise to the challenge! Everyone who believes they have an elegant combo (other than with the aforementioned lime green) can send a photo to info@gardendrum.com

      • Adele on said:

        I could try, Catherine, but would definitely lose… The major hiccup here, I believe, is that black simply does not photograph well. Tried taking a good photo of a black cat, black poodle, black cockatoo, etc? What looks (at least to me) as silky/deep/anchoring/intriguing in real life, turns into, I agree, a black hole in a photo, because it eats up the light we are trying to capture with the camera. Oh, please, let me love my black aeoniums which so snugly hug my succulent beds, and my black sambucus that looks like a dark wispy lace in front of light green shrubbery… 🙂 If I ever catch the disappearing light properly, will take up the challenge and email you the result. But thanks for raising a very entertaining discussion. I do like your style!

        • And I yours, Adele. A spirited and elegantly written defence! I shall let you love in peace – though maybe you could just snip those pale pink flowers of the sambucus when they arrive…..

  5. Ha. It’s nice to read someone so completely confident in her judgement on this one!
    I was in an otherwise fabulous UK garden this summer where the owner had combined a dark purple heuchera (never my favourite plant, in any colour) with silvery cardoons, backed by a mix of purple cotinus and what may have been silver weeping pear. To me, the dark purple plants looked like black holes in the garden, made worse by the intense contrast with pale silver. But she loved the combinations – and I guess in the end it’s her garden!

    • Oh yucko. That sounds really awful. Although I agree completely re “it’s her garden”. I know that my dislike of black plants isn’t everyone’s opinion but I do wonder sometimes if they’re really looking at the overall effect, especially from a distance. Black holes indeed!

  6. Augusta on said:

    Funereal. Gothic. Freakish. That’s the appeal in a nutshell. I love them all.

    • Yep, Augusta, I can see that. Perhaps we need a new post on ‘goth garb for gardeners’ for those that way inclined.

  7. Carol Griesser on said:

    I fully agree with you Catherine! A black plant or flower is like a black hole in the universe; sucks everything out of sight. Black; not even good for funerals!
    Carol

  8. Rhonda on said:

    Well done, how rare to find a writer prepared to voice strong opinion, especially in matters of taste.
    I just love your weekly news and views, thank you.
    Happy holiday season.

    • Well, thank you kindly Rhonda. I suspect my reputation in this industry runs along the lines of ‘the reliably opinionated Catherine Stewart’ but maybe that’s also a good thing!

  9. Oh no! It’s not even 7am and you have got me THINKING ! I agree in part with you Catherine, as many of the purported blacks are not true blacks, as the so-called ‘blue’ roses are nowhere near true blue. There are some dark, murky colours out there, masquerading as black. Truly unattractive, and marketed as novelties. Some true blacks I can find a place for, when they are put with outstanding companions. I love the little black grass, Ophiopogon Nigrescens, when it is next to a zingy little Heuchera, like ‘Limelight’ for example.

    • Haha Jane I know you NEVER stop thinking! And yes, you see, it’s a little black with plenty of lime green that’s the only possible winner. Except that it does still look like a hole in the ground from a distance!

  10. SpicyRedHead on said:

    I’m with you Augusta, love dark/black looking plants, but then again Mum always did say I was totally different from the rest of her kids! I put into my garden exactly what I like and not what appeals to others. Thank goodness for individuality, where we can all grow our own thing otherwise our gardens would be as boring as a game of cricket!

    • I agree entirely Augusta. If we were all the same how boring life, and our gardens, would be. I’m sure there are many who would deplore my scandalous overuse of orange! But no dissing cricket now….unless you’re English!

  11. Craig Thompson on said:

    Yes please: an article of opinions that aroused people enough to engage with you on this delicate topic of taste. Catherine, your abhorrence of the shades of black contained in many plants is no doubt deeply rooted in your psyche and was interesting to read, however, I truly believe that there is no cause for concern with the idea of black in the garden – just different perceptions of beauty. Whilst it may appear strange to some, the idea of a ribbon of black mondo underlining a hedge like a living mulch or mascara to define the edges to me is quite appealing – as far from depressing as one could imagine. Black bamboo, whilst an unwieldy plant in itself, provides a sense of grace that green stemmed types cannot provide. There is no such thing as an ugly plant or colour or tone or shade in a garden. Just peoples’ prejudices that limit their ability to appreciate the beauty that lies within.

  12. Adam on said:

    I agree, but the only thing worse than black flowers are green ones. Yes, green flowers. Like the green arum lily and Cymbidium orchids. Seriously, why would you plant something that when it flowers just resembles the leaves?

    • Adele on said:

      Why would one plant something that flowers green? That’s a very easy question. When I look at a vase filled with green roses, I can’t but keep asking myself: is that a miracle, or what? (Photographic evidence available on request 🙂 )
      Gardening to many of us is not just appreciating the design and the general impact of the whole garden. It’s also an opportunity to experience an almost child-like joy of witnessing something… a bit extraordinary.

  13. Well, you certainly started some significant blackchat, Catherine … good for you …. a bit like suggesting a change of uniform at the school P&C meeting. Bound to bring out the commentators for and against in droves!
    For my part, I am with you re the waste, gloom and yuck factor of black flowers , BUT I do like the black bat flower and a friend is keeping me one from a mother plant she expects babies from very soon. Think it’s the structural intricacy that draws me. Happy New Year to you and all and may GardenDrum continue to be the new black!!!

  14. I was chatting with Peter Nixon who advised me to visit your site. You need to see my dark foliaged begonias that appear black but reflect and glisten in bright light. Cheers!

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