Queens of the Night

Some thrilling black flowers for your garden..

Thinking on about hollyhocks, I once got a letter from an enthusiast who knew I collected ancient garden flowers, asking if I grew a black double one. As I was still kicking myself for missing an opportunitty to get a bit of a single black, I was even more miffed. A clump of double blacks at the back of an otherwise conventionally coloured border would look stunning.

Though they were once common , I suppose the black won’t have been an absolute and inky black. Here, a ‘black-flowered’ geranium that we got last year has just started to flower. Geranium sinense has bunches of flowers about a quarter of an inch across that look rather like full-stops. In colour they’re somewhere between bitter chocolate and midnight purple, and the reddish ‘cranesbill’ of style and anthers has five shining beads of nectar at the base. Quite a plant. Another good black geranium, and one that’s easier to find, is the the ‘Mourning Widow’. The best forms, if black is what you must have, of Geranium phaeum reach an almost black purple, though lesser ones remain just looking dingy; as widows go though, she’s pretty elegant, and the flowers, with their reflexed and waved petals are worth a close look.

There are, if you don’t feel funereal, some good paler tones in this species too, from a soft and diaphanous white to some interesting pinky greys that are perfect ‘fillers’ for a border with some strong pinks and blues. Good ones seem to seed fairly true, though the plants are easily divided as well. It’s hard to know why they’re not more often seen.

It’s rather surprising how many plant genera have produced black-flowered types. There must be a market in the insect world for such sophisticated productions; I ought to carry out surveillance here to see what colour-weary creatures alight. Perhaps, though, black flowers absorb more heat, and so are warmer places to be, even if they do look remarkably compelling in the garden.

I’ve even wondered about having a ‘black’ garden, as an antidote to the blaze of summer; somewhere to read (if I ever had time) some of the more luscious Jacobean tragedies. We already have a sundial with mottos so gloomy that, once read, the warmest day goes chill. The lawn on which it stood could be edged with the pretty blackish grass-leaved Ophiopogon; it’s fairly easily divided, and we could soon have a neat black outline to each border.

Spring could start off, of course, with some of the gorge ous black tulips. Again, lesser forms are usually just muddy purple, but the best can be quite good blacks. Black looks best if the flower itself is a interesting shape, so I’d plant quantities of black ‘parrots’, rather than boxy things like ‘Queen of the Night’; parrots have wonderfully frilled petals. I see that they’re being sold by De Jager, The Nurseries, Marden, Kent TN12 9BP.

The same place also sells the ancient black fritillary Fritillaria persica in its variety ‘Adiyaman’. Popular since the sixteenth century, this has tall spires of purplish chocolate flowers that nearly reach the desired colour. It’s an easy thing to grow and, with us, was (for I sliced up all our bulbs with an unfortunate stroke of a spade) reasonbably perennial. Once the bulbs were beginning to go over, some of the black violas would start. These range from the tiny and delightful ‘Bowles Black’, sometimes available as seed, with flowers the size of the w ild Viola tricolor, but quite inky, to some of the glamorous black violas and pansies. A black pansy in full flower is quite a startling sight, and one which seems to appeal to a remarkable number of gardeners. A nursery-woman visiting us exclaimed far too loudly ‘Oh, that must be the East Lothian black!’ We were much too cowed to demur, so it’s now in commerce under that name. In fact , we’d got it from a posh garden in Dorset. What’s in a name?

There wa s, though, once a double black pansy supposed to be in some Lothian gardens, though I’ve not seen it. The only double pansy I have seen, a double blue, was absolutely ghastly. Perhaps in black it would look more fun.

Then, amongst the violas, what about some of the marvellous black irises? There is one here that calls itself Iris chrysographes ‘Rubens’, which looks rather like an I. sibirica, but with jet black flowers. For its rather short season it draws all eyes . Shorter and blacker still is something that probably is I. chrysographes, in a variety called ‘Black Knight’. Once it’s made a clump, it looks wonderful.

For a contrast in foliage, the irises need combining with the handsome Veratrum nigrum with ribbed and pleated leaves, and high-summer spikes of glossy black-purple flowers. Then, for something frilly to constrast with so much architecture, we could add some almost-black aquilegias, whose elegant flowers match the colour perfectly (we found those, though they’re not particularly rare, growing in the courtyard of an amost derelict house near Kelso – if that nursery-woman comes again we could call them ‘Kelso Black’). Iff garden funds stretched far enough, then the borders would need a good few of the black-flowered form of Helleborus orientalis raised by Helen Ballard, and which used to cost £10 at hrow. And behind them, in fantasy at least, lots of black hollyhocks.


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