As the little black dress is to fashion, so dark plants add a sense of depth and intrigue to the outdoors. The very antithesis of all things cottagey, they are viewed as sombre by some – the moody Goth cousin to the more colourful country aesthetic.
Near-black plants, though, are remarkably beautiful, and all the more so for their relative rarity in nature. Whether you’re into meadow-style landscapes à la influential Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf or bold succulent-filled containers, dark plants are playing a leading role.
Black in Bloom
‘In domestic gardens, dark plants are best used with some restraint,’ says Joburg-based landscaper Tim Steyn. ‘But by contrasting almost-black plants with shades of grey, white or green, the effects can be spectacular. It’s about creating tonal layers and interspersing these dark accents as focal points within your planting.’
For containers, try annuals like Black Velvet petunias for high drama, or generous groupings of the indigenous Black Forest arum lily. ‘Dark arums can also look stunning planted beneath white azaleas or next to a water feature,’ says landscaper Deidre Causton of Inspirations in Gauteng.
For an opulent inky border, Queen of Night tulips are amazingly luxe, especially contrasted against grey-toned foliage like westringia or the butterfly bush. Salvias are profuse bloomers – look for deep-purple options such as Caradonna or Black and Bloom to create blocks of saturated colour in beds or perimeters. Sought-after hellebores will add winter interest, also either in beds or containers. Try the head-turning hybrids Onyx Odyssey or Queen of the Night.
Many dark-toned plants are hardy, such as black mondo grass, a frost-resistant stalwart. Use it as a ground cover, between pavers or as an edging – it’s highly effective in combination with grey fescue grass.
‘I love using Ajuga Chocolate Chip as a ground cover,’ says Deidre. ‘Its dark bronze foliage makes a good background and it adds interest all year round.’ Tim suggests using the deep-maroon succulent Black Rose aeonium as a statement plant for patios, or planted in full sun, interspersed with grey echeveria.
Good Enough to Eat
Veggie gardens are a must-have, but visually they often need a lift. ‘It makes sense to create beds with more appeal,’ says Tim, ‘and combining dark or purple-hued tones is an effective option. If you think of the purple-black of a brinjal, it can set the palette for a whole garden or a container.’
Choose herbs such as sorrel and dark basil for a rich, deep backdrop through winter. Heirloom vegetables such as purple carrots and tomatoes will add colour, and Tim suggests interplanting your veggie beds with moody blooms such as Viola Sorbet Black Delight or purple dianthus.
Dark foliage can create spectacular backgrounds. Tropical classic elephant ear’s Black Magic variety gives a modern punch to poolsides or water features. ‘In bigger plantscapes, mass-plant in swathes for maximum impact,’ says Tim. A good option is Heuchera Black Taffeta with its shiny, ruffled leaves, while Plum Pudding adds vibrant purple notes.
For vertical interest, Phormium Black Velvet makes a graphic statement with its dark, sword-like leaves, especially among paler grasses and succulents.
Find more black plants for your garden here.