Black Plants

A Review of Karen Platt's "Black Magic and Purple Passion"

Black mondo grass covered by red maple leaves.
Black mondo grass really stands out against the red of these maple leaves. Garden Photo World/Georgianna LaneCanopy/Getty Images

Are you interested in so-called "black plants?" These are plants with dark flowers and/or dark foliage. For many, these oddities are very appealing. Why? Well, there are numerous reasons why they are sought after.

Sometimes, it is the desire to send "black" roses to a foe as a symbol of vengeance -- a modern addition to the tradition of assigning meanings to rose colors. But what black roses mean can vary from case to case: It will sometimes be a matter of Gothic tendencies or a quest for the ultimate in landscaping elegance, for instance. Other gardeners may grow a plant such as 'Chocolate Drop' sedum simply for its value as a novelty item in their landscaping.

In the 3rd edition of Karen Platt's book, Black Magic and Purple Passion, information has been assembled on 2750 black plants, supplemented by 425 color pictures. Platt is recognized as the world's leading expert on black plants. The do-it-yourself landscaper interested in black plants will find much that is useful in her book.

The Book's Organization

At the heart of Black Magic and Purple Passion is a catalog of black plants. The catalog is organized alphabetically, according to scientific plant name. Each entry in this extensive catalog is composed of an introduction to the specimen, advice on how to grow it, a list of its cultivars, suggested companions, and pictures.

The catalog is prefaced by five chapters introducing the subject of dark specimens and their use in landscape design. Most readers will find themselves flipping ahead to consult the catalog even while reading these opening chapters, in order to understand the nature of the choices being discussed. However, this reviewer would urge readers to resist the temptation to lose themselves in the catalog and neglect to return to finish the opening chapters, which provide helpful information about the use of black plants in landscape design.

"Black Plants" Qualified

For starters, Platt clears up the confusion about what is entailed by the phraseology, "black plants," which Platt argues is an "umbrella term for the darkest plants in horticulture." Black plants "are called black for the sake of simplicity." Thus the second half of the title, "Purple Passion": Black plants and purple plants are considered together, as denizens of the world of dark specimens. Thus some of your best options will have "purple" (or a Latin equivalent such as purpurea) in their names. For example, purple wood spurge is so called for its dark leaves; Oxalis regnellii is equally comfortable with the name "purple shamrock plant" or "black shamrock."

A limitation to consider is that these are, after all, living plants that we are talking about, and not static works of art. Therefore, you must realize, for example, that a plant's leaf color often changes as the growing season progresses. Thus Ligularia dentata 'Britt-Marie Crawford' sports leaves purple enough to qualify it as a black plant when it first emerges, but that striking color may fade later.

Since few plants are jet black (a rare exception being black mondo grass), Platt offers tips on how to help black plants appear as dark as possible. For example, juxtaposition can certainly aid your viewing pleasure, as when bright-colored specimens are planted among your dark choices. The contrast with the former will make your black plants appear darker than they would otherwise. Some examples are given in this article on black hollyhocks.

Like a good photographer, a landscaper working with dark specimens will also want to pay strict attention to lighting. "Tones change in relation to sunlight," writes Platt. "It is not improbable for different tones to appear dominant at different times of the day and from different angles and positions." Moreover, some plants "change colour in shade, others in sun. Generally speaking, for best colour, place with the sun behind...."

High Points of the Book

Of the opening chapters, the reader will be especially pleased with "Designs on Black," which is organized according to theme. Here readers will learn about using black plants for a tropical look and for a Gothic look, in xeriscape landscaping and in cottage gardens. Other themes considered are woodland gardens, container gardens, edible black plants and black plants for landscaping around swimming pools.

"Designs on Black" begins with some initial considerations of how black plants can work alone or with other colors in your landscape design, and some sound designing advice. "The ultimate key to the success of a dark garden," writes Platt, "is the selection of plants with regard to tone, foliage, texture and form. Black plants can effectively be used together if they are not too similar." Platt offers some tantalizing examples of plantings of black and silver, black and gold and, of course, black and white. Information is also provided about dark ornamental grasses and "black" roses.

For information on purchasing Black Magic and Purple Passion, please see Karen Platt's Web site.