Sunday, November 8, 2009

Black or Dark Foliaged Plants

Black or Dark foliaged and flowering plants seem to attract some understandable curiosity and experimentation. When you think of it black does not seem to be a natural colour for a plant and it’s not for there are very few that I would consider really black but we, rightly I feel, take poetic license.

The attraction to anything black is understandable when one thinks of the position the colour black holds in all strata of fashion and visual appreciation. I once posted this quote on my Facebook page “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black” ..... “Henry Ford”. No argument from me there Mr Ford my Volvo is metallic black thank you, oops its not a Ford oh well there is free choice for you. For me the same holds true for Phormium but the choice is the customers I just can hope they pick my choice Phormium Black Adder on some occasions.

In fashion we have the veritable institution of the little Black Dress. I know nothing of ladies fashion wear and that wont change I fear but you can read more here. . In rock music we had ACDC’s Back in Black, Ozzy Ozbournes infamous group Black Sabbath, the whole Goth cult thing, it goes on and on Black is stuck in our genetic makeup no matter what the art or creative activity one looks at. Don’t be surprised when this love of black transfers to plants as our American cousin Gen Y’s might say duhhhh. Anyone claiming to lead this trend would be as well lay claim our pre programmed fascination with the colour black itself. It’s going to happen that now and then as the worlds appreciation of plants grows so too does the sub genre of the plant world “black plants”. Us humans have a preoccupation with the colour black and there are chartreuse, pink, red, blue etc but two colours in our psyche stand out. Black and Red and guess what there is the Red Rose Tatoo, Simply Red, Lady in Red, Red Red Wine and so on and so on. There are colours that inspire us and black is top of the heap for many and combine that with its suitability mixing with other colours I rest my case. I have no more to say about the subject of black plants as a general trend as for me the trend is a simple as the above explanation. I can be wrong on this but I hold this opinion as my understanding on the general root cause.

Horticultural involvement and curiosity about black plants for me developed in 1998 when I made my first black plant discovery on the nursery. This discovery came in the form of what is now known as Ceanothus Tuxedo. Let me tell you first I was genuinely shocked, out of a batch of about 6,000 young plants of Ceanothus Autumnal Blue here was this one plant that definitely was not green. However there is more to the story which adds to my curiosity and made me shake my head in wonderment. That year for the first time ever we lost over 60% of the plants in that batch of Autumnal Blue this plant arose in the middle of the worst affected area of the bed. I am lost as to how we managed to kill them as we rarely had difficulty rooting Ceanothus and at the time it was a very large production item for us. In any event there it was a survivor out of what was a bit of a fiasco for our production of Ceanothus Autumnal blue for that year of 1998 and my first discovery of a very dark foliage plant.
I was not finished yet, Tuxedo proved quite difficult to propagate thereafter and it took a lot of work to save the original plant. Eventually I learned it likes sunlight and lots of it probably due to the darkness of the foliage. Eventually we produced enough and the rest is our own little piece of Hort history. I managed to grow the first 3 stable plants from this one plant and from there bulked it up in numbers year by year. Ceanothus Tuxedo is now getting lots of attention as far away as California USA and Tokyo Japan and places in between. In USA you can get Tuxedo from brokers of Pacific Plug and Liner Watsonville California. For Europe go to

The second Black plant developed from a mutation of Phormium Platts Black which we were trying to propagate through micropropagation but went horribly wrong. I ended up making various selections which were not true to type. This sometimes happens in micro-propagation. Eventually when I re-selected the best looking form and put it back into propagation it was stable and hey presto the best selection we brought to the world as Phormium Black Adder and look what itself and Tuxedo has been getting up to lately. Black Adder Phormium is now planted all over the world, Japan, Europe, New Zealand, Australia and USA, this last 12 months we sold 120,000 Black Adder so somebody really likes our black Phormium. If there is any need for evidence that there is a trned towards black plants I think Tuxedo and Black Adder has proven it for me.
So they are my babies I can safely say and my only claim to fame in the black plant world. Black Adder won best patio and balcony plant at IPM Essen in 2008.
In USA you can get Black adder from Pacific Plug and Liner Watsonville California. In Europe from

My third horticultural involvement with a new black plant is from a friend in Cornwall called Steve Yandell. Steve is one of the nicest guys in this plant world and an amazingly enthusiastic plants man and breeder. I have been growing Ophiopgon nigrascens for 20 years now and when Steve rang me and told me he has a special form of Black Mondo Grass I thought yeah yeah ok I guess its variegated that kinda blows the black thing? Steve told me no its got longer leaves it suckers more, it grows faster it makes your coffee and bakes scones. Well I did tell you he is enthusiastic! Seriously I was cautious but I happened to be going down for a meeting at the Eden Project a few months later and I made a date to see this black plant in of all places right on the highest point one could imagine overlooking one of the most southerly parts of England Penzance. The picture below is what I saw and took home with me, he was right its all of the above but it didn’t make the tea, coffee or bake. However it did all the other things Steve said it would. So three years later its on the market and of course as it comes from Penzance its called after a famous pirate “Blackbeard”. For me so far if we are to be purist Ophiopgon Blackbeard is the little black dress of black foliage plants. Its black, its sleek, its simple unassuming and Black as I dare any plant foliage to be! That plant in the picture has a bizarre story of piracy of its own however. We are the propagators of this plant in Europe for Steve and have sent plants to USA also. TO promote the plant and get customer feed back I brought it to IPM Essen in Germany which is one of the biggest horticultural industry shows in the world. I was proud to show Blackbeard off on our stand for the first time and after the show we packed it up with some other wonderful plants and left it waiting for our transport agent. You may have guessed what next, it was stolen from our stand and never seen by us again. However thousands are now out in California and in Europe as well as Japan luckily we had begum propagation but somebody out there stooped so low as to steal our very first plant! Fact, believe it or not, an act of piracy and treachery maybe old Blackbeard himself came back from his watery grave, who knows. If it was not Blackbeard the pirate then whoever you are I am taking this opportunity to tell you, I would like it back please!
So to summarize my thoughts on black plants as a genre they must be first of all a “good plant” to be a good black plant to be the colour black just doesn’t cut it for me. On colour depth I am happy to use poetic license. So long as the plants attribute whether foliage or flower is not stretching the colour spectrum to plainly not blackish. If the plant can have berry like Blackbeard or flower like Tuxedo or pure brazen leaf shine like Black Adder it’s making my list.

If the plant pirate is reading this. Black is Black I want my baby back........ (my baby being Blackbeard! I want it back it was my plant! I got it from a friend! Thats his boot in the picture!)