Black Plants

Paul Bonine’s first book, Black Plants: 75 striking choices for the garden, does not claim to be encyclopedic, but it is a fun read. More importantly, it is prepared for American gardens by one of the Pacific Northwest’s most adventurous plantsmen.

Other works on the topic of black plants may be more academic and comprehensive, but most have been written from a British viewpoint that typically fails to take into account the added vigor most plants show in North American gardens. Roses and clematis are always larger here than as advertised in UK sources, and many herbaceous perennials suffer the same fate. We happy gardeners in the Pacific Northwest are lucky to have nurserymen like Paul, and his business partner Greg Shepard at Xera Plants, doing that research for us.

Although seventy-five plants seems a paltry number for the topic, this is a wide-ranging selection of tropicals, perennials, groundcovers, small trees, and shrubs, with most of them readily available in the trade. There are old classics like the statuesque hollyhock Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’ (often listed as ‘Night Watchman’), which is bone hardy and rarely gets rust in eastern Washington or Oregon. The herb garden is represented by a personal favorite, Angelica gigas—a must for the autumn landscape, and a pollinator magnet without peer. The picture of Delphinium ‘Chocolate’ looks much more compelling than the plants proved to be in my garden, but I am inspired now to try it again.

Paul reveals yet another pittosporum selection, this time ‘County Park Dwarf’. The shiny, purple bronze foliage of this evergreen New Zealand shrub adds a more petite and bushy form to the list of available cultivars of Pittosporun tenuifolium var. purpurascens, several of which have been reliable in my Portland garden for over ten years. This group should be more widely grown, as they are proving to be both handsome and durable. As one would imagine, they look quite fine with New Zealand hybrid clematis, such as the equally evergreen Clematis ‘Early Sensation’, scrambling at their feet.

I am often dismayed by garden “experts” who condemn dark plants for creating “black-holes in the garden.” Beginning gardeners may be swayed by such comments, and will thus unduly avoid some really great options. As with any plants with bold features, placement is everything; a few pictures here (amongst the plant portraits) present innovative plant combinations that show off black plants to good effect. Look for the lovely image of Christopher Lloyd’s buttercup, Ranunculus ficara ‘Brazen Hussy’ with lime green Irish moss, the moss being the same shade as the stems and flowers of this somber-leafed creeper. The auburn foliage of Clematis recta ‘Purpurea’ is all the better for being “back-lit” by the variegated Euphorbia ‘Tasmanian Tiger’. Unfortunately, garden credits are not provided here—an annoying omission given such lovely photographic opportunities provided by those garden creators.

Someday, I shall also create the black-and-white theme garden I have been dreaming of; when I do, Black Plants will become muddy and dog-eared. Hopefully, author and publisher will provide a meatier edition in the future, or perhaps Paul will write a comprehensive version for another bold plant color. I’d certainly like to read more of either.

Linda Beutler, garden writer & floral designer
Portland, Oregon