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Larry Sagers
A black hollyhock blooms at Thanksgiving Point.

Gardening on the dark side?

For someone who loves gardens and gardening, it is hard to admit that plants have a dark side. Fortunately the dark side does not involve Darth Vader, depression or the occult — it is just part of a trend to include dark colored plants in the landscape.

Fashion houses consider black a fashion staple. While black plants will never have the same popularity as black pants, there has always been a fascination for dark foliage, dark leaves and dark bark. While some see this as a new trend, black flowers were popular Victorian treasures.

The search for black roses is still elusive. Black apples remain locked in some sort of genetic genome bank, and black petunias are still on the drawing board. However, dark is there if you are willing to look a little.

How black is black? While you aren't likely to see the Crayola black you colored with in grade school, dark maroon, dark red and even dark grey might be labeled as "black" in catalogs and on retailers shelves. Black plants are often just the darkest shades available of any species.

From a distance, these dark colors appear as holes in the beds, so never plant the entire bed with dark plants. Many are most appealing when backlit, so the sun twinkles through the leaves as you view them.

Use black foliage to contrast with other bright colors. Bright or pale shades of yellow, pink and lavender are easy choices, but red, chartreuse or orange also contrast well if not overdone. Avoid using only white flowers, as that makes a less interesting bed.

Going back a century or more, we can find several black flowers. Start with the black or dark maroon cornflower or bachelor button. It is an annual that likes sun and heat. The black or Western coneflower is a Utah native. It grows in our mountains with dark, petal-free flowers.

Black hollyhocks are striking flowers that grow several feet tall. The tall spikes make a bold statement and are resistant to grazing deer. Scabiosa atropurpurea, or black morning bride, is a dark maroon flowered perennial that blooms well throughout the season. Look for Black Peony poppy and Black Prince snapdragon and black nasturtium, if you are interested.

Three other flowers are also part of the dark side: Penny Black nemophila is a cool season wildflower. Black viola and black pansies are some of the darkest and blackest of any flowers currently on the market.

More recent trends include many popular plants. One dark plant that has attracted an enthusiastic following is the elephant ear plant, Colocasia esculenta "Black Magic." The huge black leaves impart a rich tropical look to the garden.

Ipomoea batatas, the dark-leaved sweet potato vine, is a striking spreading plant. It is a regular in many designs as it flows in black-maroon colored waves through the garden. Although it is a newcomer, it is already established as a favorite of many gardeners.

Black coleus is another favorite. "Inky Fingers" has resurfaced along with many other black cousins as striking garden plants. Their color is similar to many dark leaved cannas and a few dark colored grasses.

Canna "Red Wine" has vivid red flowers contrasting with coal-black stems and leaves. "Black Knight" canna has black and green leaves and red flowers.

Although I wouldn't classify them as black, the dark-leaved Heuchera (coral bells) are great plants for Utah gardeners. Look for purple, dark silver and other colors in cultivars named "Bressingham Bronze," "Palace Purple," "Chocolate Veil," "Whirlwind," "Amethyst Mist," "Pewter Moon" and "Pewter Veil."

Two dahlias are known for their dark colors. "Bishop of Llandaff" has dark mahogany-colored leaves and ruby-colored flowers. "Fascination" grows 18- to 24-inches tall. The lilac blossoms contrast well with the shiny, dark purple foliage.

Vegetables also add some dark color. "Black Beauty," "Ichiban" and several other dark purple eggplants add deep color. The "Black Pearl" pepper is equally at home in the vegetable or flower garden. It is variable, but on some plants the foliage and the fruits are very black. Bronze fennel, an herb, also has interesting foliage with a blackish tint.

Sambucus nigra or black elderberry, is another must-have plant. The new cultivars include "Black Lace" and "Black Beauty." Their massive, pink flower clusters contrast with the dark foliage. Let it grow as a shrub or cut it back each year and grow it as a perennial.

Larry A. Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.