The Dark Side, Part 1

– Posted in: Garden Design

I’ve got a thing for dark foliage. I love its smoky, sultry color, the way it can deepen a planting and lend it an air of mystery at the same time. It’s also a great foliage contrast with almost any other color and since I’m one of those who believes in building gardens from the leaves out, it’s an essential building block in almost any planting scheme I concoct.  It’s a great companion for anything chartreuse, a pairing I use in profusion.  And last but not least, those moody hues are a superlative background for any bright, hot color–yellow, orange or red.

I also like annuals, tender perennials and tropicals and am ever on the hunt for new ones, especially those with foliage that’s ABG—anything but green. A few of my favorites provide an excess–no wait, that’s not possible–of that deep dark foliage I find so alluring. Some are small statured and provide hints of that color in subtle ways, while others loom larger and deliver a giant jolt of drama. Here are few of my big ones, the heavy hitters:

It doesn’t get any darker than the inky black abyss created by Pseuderanthemum atropurpureum. I think of it as the horticultural equivalent of a cosmic black hole; it’s Darth Vader dark. Mine have grown to 2 or 3 feet tall in the course of a season, so although they are not the biggest kid on the block, their glossy midnight leaves steal the show wherever I place them. I’ve had fun growing them in a pot and plunking it down here and there just to gauge the effect. It’s always striking. I never get tired of looking at this plant, especially if it’s surrounded by a see-through scrim of frilly yellows or oranges, say some fern-leafed marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia).


Another sure fire winner is this tropical smokebush (Euphorbia cotinifolia). I can’t understand why I don’t see this plant just everywhere. It looks a lot like purple smokebush—hence the common and botanic names—but there’s more of a molten red in its leaf color. It is utterly stunning when early morning or late afternoon sun shines through those leaves. You cannot go wrong blending this with any other hot color, or as in this shot, as an anchor for a whole slew of hot colors. It’s almost foolproof.  And look how droplets of rainwater bead up on the leaves like little jewels. This is an easy plant to overwinter-I just stick it in the dark cold basement and in a few years I have plants 6 feet tall.

As you might have guessed I dwell in a state of deep zonal denial, as evidenced by, among other things, my collection of banana plants, none of which outshine this banana relative, the splendiferous red Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’). Not only are its leaves brushed with beauteous burgundy, they are tough, tough, tough – so leathery they don’t get shredded by wind and rain like the leaves of so many other bananas. And the trunk…I prune off old leaves at the base to expose the almost ebony gloss of this faux banana’s trunk. This is another easy-to-overwinter plant: dark and dormant in the cold basement. Plants three years old easily reach 8 feet or more and bear leaves big enough to hide behind. The biggest one in the photo of the trio is only in its 3rd year.

Cannas also deliver a large-leaved jolt to any garden setting, and there are a few splendid dark-leaved cultivars that really pay the rent. I like 5-foot-tall ‘Australia’ with its rather slender, blade-shaped leaves, and 3-foot ‘Dark Knight’, with broader, paddlelike leaves. As for the flowers, I generally don’t care much for them and usually lop them off – too strident in mannered company.  Instead, I grow these for their foliage. And I’ve noticed that ‘Dark Knight’ in particular is a good plant to use when transitioning from one color to another.  I think of it as a pivot point. For example, I’d never put these reddish coleus and dahlias next to the yellowish ones, but with the big black leaves in between serving as a kind of moderator, the transition eases. I think it works fine.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Chookie February 18, 2008, 7:08 am

No surprises here, Steve — I think every post I’ve seen from you includes dark foliage! Are you familiar with the old Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’? It’s common in older Sydney gardens, but must be unfashionable [blergh!] at the moment. Very handsome in form as well as foliage, with delightful pink blossoms. I’m sure you’d like it if you don’t have one!

Chookie–Thanks for the tip! I grow some purple leaf sand cherries, which seem similar, though your pick seems to have a bit more interest, according to some quick hits via google. Could be a good one for me. Fashionable? Hey, I like marigolds! Yes I do love dark foliage and it would be a challenge to get an expansive picture of my garden that did not include at least some. I like colorful foliage because it makes the garden look good even when little or nothing is in bloom. And, I haven’t even BEGUN to touch on my passion for anything charteuse or gold, but let me assure you that my abundant use of that stuff puts all my bugundies in the shade, so to speak.–Steve

Ken from Sweden February 18, 2008, 7:34 am

Hi Steve!
Today you have a sparkle contibution.
I like it! we have tryed to plant some annuells but we have so short summer that they dont get so big.
We tryed to do “sparkle” garden whith perrenials and bushes instead.

Hi Ken-Even with loads of perennials and bushes, annuals are good for perking things up and adding blocks of color that carry you through the season. I understand you might have a challenge in Sweden as far as heat, but in summer you must have more than enough light! There’s a guy in Alaska, I think his name is Les Brake, and he does all kinds of annuals, You might try goggling him. Also, lots of British Columbia gardeners must face similar challenges. I think it’s just a matter of picking the annuals that will thrive in your circumstances. Whatever the case, I like hearing you describe gardens as sparkling, that is a fine notion.–Steve

Lisa at Greenbow February 18, 2008, 8:06 am

I like that thought “deep zonal denial.” I get a severe case of this when I am strolling through the nursery greenhouses during spring shopping. I too try to use dark foilage in the garden. I don’t have as much as you do asI try to use perrennials as well as bushes and trees to get the affect. Your post has given me a new way to look at the garden.

Lisa–Yeah, I have the zonal denial thing bad. You should see my basement, where I overwinter literally hundreds of tender plants, most of which are dormant or nearly so. Using them in such abundance reallty makes it possible to think out of the box when making combinations. I too use a lot of hardy but somewhat tropical looking trees and shrubs with colorful foliage to further my vision for the garden. Saying my post gave you a new way to look at the garden is, to me, the highest of compliments, so thank you.–Steve

Elly Phillips February 18, 2008, 9:35 am

Wow, Steve, where’d you get your Abyssinian bananas?! Talk about a must-have plant! As for people who turn up their noses at marigolds, I can only assume that said noses are woefully deficient. The fragrance of marigolds is one of the delights of summer.

Elly-I got mine from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, they have smallish $14 ones that will have almost immediate impact but won’t get dramatic until their second season. I remember the first time I saw one–my wife brought it home from a lecture she’d attended and I thought she was nuts to have spend almost $40 for an annual (it was already about 4 feet tall). Hah! Showed how little I knew. Ever since that plant has been front and center in our patio container extravaganza and we’ve puirchased many more and use them in all kinds of ways. They are easy, easy to overwinter indoors in a cool dark basement. As for marigolds, well, there’s not only their distinctive fragrance, but all those hot colors and lush forms. Plus the things are virtual flower factories. How can you not like that? And BTW, they make a fine skirt around smaller-sized–i.e. juvenile–red Abyssinian bananas. –Steve

Kylee February 18, 2008, 9:59 am

Your use of dark foliage gives your garden such a rich lush look and air. Stunning!

Thanks Kylee–Burgundy traditionally was the color of royalty-kings, queens, potentates and various muckety-mucks. I think it lends a vibrant but still sort of understated grandeur to any garden scene. –Steve

wiseacre February 18, 2008, 4:49 pm

I’m just a bit simple minded 🙂 I’ve got to have every color I can find. Foliage or flower, dark is only one more option I can’t pass by. I am well aware of my zone though even if the *garden centers* here are not.

I was tickled ‘pink’ last year when I came across Heuchera “Obsidian”. The foliage is best described as black.

Wiseacre, I know what you mean about wanting every color, especially this time of year. I think the Pseuderanthemum and also that cool perennial black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, share that blackety black color with ‘Obsidian’. –Steve

Anna--Flowergardengirl February 20, 2008, 1:43 am

I have Lorapedalums everywhere–some even growing like trees. It’s my bones against the pinkish brick of my house. But on the 14th of next month, I move into my new house with a very old fashioned white brick, sage siding, and stone front. I built that whole dad gum house so it would showcase my plants. I can just see my purples and browns against that white!!!! I’m with you on this one.

Oh, Anna, I think the loropetalums (and everything else) are going to look stunning with the sage green and white. How exciting!

Anna–I think it sounds like a great color combo too. I’m jealous–Loropetalums are beauteous. Wish they were hardy here; I can only grown them in containers that I overewinter indoors. Just another manifestation of my zonal denial. Worth it though!–Steve.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 21, 2008, 3:37 pm

Love it! The use of dark foliage works better than white at moderating clashing colors. I am in serious zone reality, so my favorite dark leaved shrub dujour is Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Monlo.’ Although the pink flowers are nice with the leaves, its cranberry colored seedheads are great with them. (I killed my purple-leaved sand cherry.)

I’m a big fan of that Physocarpus, MMD. Among hardy plants, and especially shrubs, its right up there with the darkest, and unlike a lot of other woody plants with colorful foliage, it doesn’t drift toward green as the season progresses. And they grow so incredibly fast. Now that it’s about 8×8, I’m contemplating cutting mine to the ground this year, so it returns to a more manageable size for its place. –Steve

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