Black(ish) beauties

December 11th, 2015 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

The genuinely black flowers of Viola 'Blackjack' are enhanced by a tiny orange eye.

Black flowers always exert a special fascination. Perhaps it’s because they seem so unnatural yet at the same time intriguing? Perhaps it’s because there are so few of them? Perhaps it’s because they just don’t see possible? And anyway, aren’t flowers supposed to attract pollinators? Can black flowers do that?

Most black flowers have been developed by plant breeders so have no need attract pollinators and, anyway, many pollinators are attracted by nectar guides on the flowers which are hidden from us because they’re only visible in ultraviolet light which we can’t see. The few wild plants that have black flowers often have another feature that attracts pollinators, such as smell.

Of course, not all black flowers are a genuine true black. Most are deepest crimson or deepest purple but they certainly appear black until you look closely.

Black flowers associate well with fiery shades and with pastels, if you’d like to try some next year, there are some annuals that I’ve found easy-to-grow, are dependably dark in colour and which fit in well with other plants.

Standing out as the closest to true black is ‘Blackjack’ pansy (above). The flowers are not huge, which ensures that they stand up better to winter weather, and they have an intriguing network of veins that are even more black than the flowers – if you see what I mean. The tiny yellow eye only serves to highlight the richness of the colour. Sow in summer for winter flowers, or in spring for summer flowers.

I’m not sure that plants of Antirrhinum ‘Black Prince’ have been truly black since it was first introduced a hundred years ago! The colour has drifted to a rich, deep crimson and sometimes the leaves seem darker than the flowers. The same is true of Cornflower ‘Black Ball’, it’s closer to crimson, really, but nicely offset by the slightly silvery leaves. But both are lovely.

Scabious ‘Black Knight’ (below) is a good colour, but some of the best blacks come in bicoloured flowers. When I grew Dianthus ‘Chianti’, the scented double flowers opened in a genuine black-and-white combination and ‘Black Magic’ sunflowers are black in the centre and rusty crimson around the edge. Coleus ‘Black Dragon’ even has has dusky black leaves with red centres.

There’s more to choose from than you might expect, you can see some others here. And this intriguing little book, Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices for the Garden by Paul Bonine, will enhance your interest.

The sultry Scabiosa 'Black Knight' is more deep crimson than true black.


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Is one of our best known gardening writers. A graduate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Graham was previously Gardening Correspondent of The Observer.
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