Black plants are weird and wonderful

New book explores weird and wonderful black plants, from the Chinese cobra lily to Vampire's Dracula orchid.

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    The purple and black leaves of the iresine plant stand out in the Hmong herb garden at the University of California's Kearney Ag Research Center in Parlier.
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Welcome to the dark side.

This is where the other plants grow, the ones that defy the cheery kaleidoscope of nature. They're black plants, some with names that underscore their eerie appearance — names like Dracula orchid and bat flower, voodoo lily and mourning widow.

They're odd and striking and, as Paul Bonine puts it, "They're really weird."

Mr. Bonine, a nursery owner with a penchant for these horticultural curiosities, celebrates them in the new book "Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices for the Garden" (Timber Press, $14.95).

Black plants lend an aura of mystery to a garden, but they also provide a dash of sophistication, Bonine says.

He argues that black plants bring to the garden what a black granite countertop adds to a monochromatic kitchen or an ebony necklace to an uninspired outfit — a bit of panache that sets off whatever's around them.

Bonine has long-grown black plants at Xera Plants, his wholesale nursery south of Portland, Ore. He also grows them in his own garden to play off the variegated, chartreuse and gold-leaf plants he loves.

He uses them sparingly to provide contrast to a brighter plant nearby. "If you use too much, they become kind of like a black hole," he says.

Black plants aren't purely black, but rather have exceptionally dark red or purple flowers, leaves, or fruit.

Why nature made them that way isn't entirely clear.

Bonine says in his book that the compounds responsible for the deep colors, called anthocyanins, may protect the plant against intense sunlight. Or their color may simply be a genetic quirk, the result of too much pigment being passed through the generations.

New Zealand has an abundance of plants with dark leaves, he notes. "It's a freak of evolution, I guess."

Some black plants are particularly striking. Chinese cobra lily (Arisaema concinnum), for example, has a showy black-and-white-striped spathe, a curved bract similar to a jack-in-the-pulpit's. Large wild ginger (Asarum maximum) has fuzzy petals with a furry white ring at their base.

Others are flat-out creepy. The petals of Vampire's Dracula orchid (Dracula vampira), for example, are veined with black and white lines and surround a light pink pouch that resemble a little coffin.

Voodoo lily (Dracunculus vulgaris) has a black spike in the center of a spathe the color of raw meat and the foul odor of rotten flesh.

Among Bonine's favorites is Blackie sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie'), one of the better-known black plants. This annual lasts the entire growing season, he says, and has deep-colored leaves that add texture and color to the garden that flowers can't provide.

He's also partial to Diablo ninebark (Physocarpus 'Diablo'), which has shedding bark and foliage that turns from black to orange and red in autumn.

Your garden might never be the same.

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our contests.

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