Lighter Side of Darkness
Stephen Anderton discusses
the fashion for black-leaved plants like Dahlia ‘Bishop
of Llandaff’, and is taken with the impulse to
create an appropriate limerick
What is it about black-leaved plants that brings out
such lust in gardeners? Why do we have to have them?
Why, when a nurseryman describes Geranium phaeum as
having “almost black” flowers, do gardeners
drool and pull out their cheque books?
Partly it's the lingerie thing. People think black is
sexy, and it is. Look at water droplets standing on
the feathery foliage of black-leaved fennel after a
shower (that's rain in the garden, not you fresh from
the bathroom) and you cannot fail to be fascinated.
Everyone nowadays has to have the dahlia 'Bishop of
Llandaff', even people who a few years ago were so snobbishly
anti-dahlia that they would not allow one in the garden.
Who, now, can resist that glittery black foliage, as
black as you find on any plant, and those bright red
flowers. It is pure Shirley Bassey, with the emphasis
on the lipstick. (Perhaps that's how the eponymous Bishop
liked to think of himself?) The Bishop may not be the
best flower on a black-leaved dahlia, but she certainly
Trouble is, it's
not glamour and pizzazz that make the world go round.
They may be fun, but they don't pay the rent. They make
too little structural impact in the rational light of
day. In a garden every plant needs to pay full rent
for as long as it's visible, or it shouldn't be there.
So think hard about how you use black-leaved plants.
They make a fine moment of contrast of course. Against
a backdrop of differing greens, the occasional moment
of black works well - clipped Pittosporum 'Tom Thumb'
amongst box balls, or the black elder Sambucus 'Black
Beauty' billowing up at the back of a deep border or
shrubbery. The Bishop looking queeny in an autumn border
of outrageous hot colours.
But more often than not black foliage looks best close
to. From a distance it just looks like a hole in the
general canopy of the planting. It is a non-colour really.
But it does make an unusual and effective foil for other
colours. That's why the pink flowers of the 'Black Beauty'
elder look so delicious against the black foliage. That's
why the pinkish flowers and the black-purple foliage
of the cow parsley Anthriscus 'Ravenswing' look so good
together. That's why a pot of the black aeonium looks
so striking mulched with pink glass chips. That's why
peachy eremurus or kniphofias look so chic spiking up
through a sea of black fennel. It's the classic combination
of flesh tones and black lace.
But the whole point
of flesh tones and black lace is that they appeal close
to, not from 30 yards away. Lacy blackness only has
impact where you can get close to it. So use such plants
lightly, for the more intimate moments of the garden.
The contrast of black foliage and pale stone or concrete
is severest of all. I once saw a rockery bank planted
all over with black-leaved lily turf, Ophiopogon planiscapus
'Nigrescens'. It looked like a lava-flow of Spotted
Dick, every stone a white raisin afloat on the black
dough. By the time the lily turf had matured and actually
hidden most of the stones, it would have made a wonderfully
textured shady bank. But for now it looked, well, very
spotty. Such is the power of contrast of a large area
of black. But maybe more carefully used, perhaps the
odd square of lily turf in a paved courtyard, or several
squares? Or several squares of the green form, and one
black? The name of the game with black foliage is contrast.
It is there to be played with. So have fun with the
Bishop, but give him a hard time.
If you really want to have fun with the Bishop, apply
your mind to completing the following limerick, and
email the result to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here's the first line:
An eager young curate from Llandaff,
reprinted with premission from Greenfingers.com