Goth Gardening: Cultivating Black Plants
There may be no pastime considered more wholesome than gardening. How can you go wrong combining exercise with fresh air and home improvement? All things cast a shadow, though. You need not look far to find sinister, occluded elements to this most innocuous of activities. For the goth gardener, black plants abound.
Black plants are famously rare. In order to clarify the reason, we’ll need to delve into a bit of science. Pigments are important to plants because they play a role in photosynthesis, the process by which plants use light to make their own food. Green colored chlorophylls are the most common pigments in the plant kingdom. They look green because they absorb most other colors within the light spectrum.
The colors with the lightest values fall in the center of the visible light spectrum, so pigments that absorb those colors will produce the darkest plants. Carotenoids are no help, since they feed on the dark reds and purples that give us nice, somber foliage and flowers. What we need are the anthocyanins which absorb those pale greens and yellows, leaving us with deeper hues in the purple and brownish ranges.
Let me introduce you to some of my favorite plants you can use when designing your gothic garden.
Topping my list of favorite black leafy plants is the black sweet potato vine. These handsome creepers are perennial in the south, but can be grown anywhere as a summer annual. They are low maintenance, drought-resistant, and look splendid in hanging containers. There are a number of black varietals with different leaf shapes. The cut-leaf type is my favorite. There’s something almost architectural about their appearance.
Another option is a popular perennial called heuchera. Several strains fall into the color range we are looking for. The “Frosted Violet” varietal bears striking leaves that are black, and shot through or tipped with purple. The leaves of the “Bronze Wave” tend toward the warmer end of the color spectrum.
Black mondo grass is not technically grass, but a type of lily. Its glossy black blades makes it among the most popular choices for dark colored ornamental grasses. It will tolerate many types of soil, and does not require large amounts of water to thrive. It is hardy up to USDA Zone 6a but also does well as an annual planting in colder regions.
Purple Majesty Millet is another excellent choice in the grasses category. It hails from a family that produces edible grains and produces a profusion of whimsical, fuzzy blooms. If you’re looking to add some height to your planting, this is just the plant for the job, as it can grow up to 6 feet. It’s not very cold tolerant, but thrives in the warm months.
Black flowers are the belle of the gothic garden party. Fortunately, many common flowers come in near-black varietals, such as dahlias, tulips, and peonies. I’ll focus on a few of the standouts that I have seen put to good use in the garden.
Black hollyhock was the first black flower I ever grew. They can be cultivated easily from seed. Hollyhocks grow on stalks, sometimes as tall as 8 feet. They are quite cold hardy, and their blossoms are stunning. The ruffled, velvety petals are as close to a true black as you can get.
The iris is a garden favorite that is hardy in nearly all zones. The flowers unique petal structure lends interest. Many varietals are “bearded,” meaning that the downward pointing petals have a shaggy fringe that gives the flowers an even more exotic look.
If you would like a real challenge that will delight and astonish your spooky friends, I humbly suggest the bat orchid. This tender flower will only tolerate the warmest zones, but it is possible to grow it in containers. It requires a bit more tending than the other plants mentioned here, but it may be worth the trouble. It is said to resemble a bat in flight, and features peculiar, trailing “whiskers.”
I hope I have given some hope to those who have despaired of ever getting their dark inclinations and their love of horticulture to hang out together. Nature may not provide us with a true black pigment, but if we are willing to do the work, there are some darkly beautiful species to discover and enjoy.