Embrace plant noir with these new delightfully dark perennials

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Dark times call for dark plants, indeed. Learn which gloomy but groovy varieties are standing out amidst the crowd.

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October 22, 2021

Hibiscus ‘Edge of Night’.
© Delmaine Donson | ADOBESTOCK

Have you been feeling a little black and blue the last couple of years? Me too. So, I decided “bruised” would make a fitting garden color scheme theme for 2022. “Bruised” has always been my favorite color combo, but it feels particularly appropriate right now. Black, blue, purple and a bit of chartreuse thrown in for contrast and accuracy. As luck would have it, there are some lovely black and blue perennials hitting the retail market in 2022.

Dark times

Dark times often seem to call for dark foliage. The black foliage plant trend isn’t new, but we’ve seen a resurgence in its popularity over the last year or so, especially in the houseplant market. The Raven ZZ plant, Alocasia, Peperomia, Begonia, and jewel orchids (Ludisia discolor), sparked much of the excitement in the indoor garden. Taking your cue from indoor gardening trends, black foliage will also resonate with your outdoor gardeners.

Consumers are simply trying to find something different or unique to enhance both their living spaces and gardens. Black, or almost-black, foliage and flowers certainly deliver on distinction. Given the number of new perennial plant releases that look to encourage gardeners to grow to the dark side, I’d say black foliage is due for another moment in the sun.

I did manage to make it on one business trip scheduled over the last two years that didn’t get cancelled: AmericanHort’s Cultivate ’21 show. While it felt a bit strange (I suspect not only for me) figuring out how to navigate a crowded convention center during a pandemic, I made a few fast passes through the trade show floor; specifically, to hunt for new standout plant varieties.

The new perennial releases that caught my eye include:

Sedum ‘Back in Black’: You can definitely go to the dark side of your sun garden with this fall-bloomer. Near-black leaves will offer standout contrast in your garden most of the growing season, followed by flowers with cream petals and a bullseye red center, creating a pinkish hue across the bloom clusters. Give plants full sun to retain the rich and deep foliage color.

Hibiscus ‘Edge of Night’: While pink flowers don’t technically fit into my “bruise” color scheme, there’s no denying that the foliage of this new compact hardy hibiscus are near-black and quite stunning. The foliage is described as “jet black,” which does make a lovely contrast to the huge 8-inch rosy, pink flowers. With plants growing to only 3-3 ½ feet tall, this cultivar should make a nice container specimen as well. Full sun, of course, keeps these beauties in full flower and foliage intensity.

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’.
Sedum ‘Back in Black’.

Got the blues?

Geranium ‘Boom Chocolatta’: As its name implies, this gorgeous Geranium pratense hybrid has deliciously dark bronze foliage with chocolatey tones. But it’s the combination with intense purple-to-blue flowers that place this plant firmly into my bruise-appropriate scheme. While I believe this cultivar first hit the market a couple of years ago, this is the first I’m seeing of it, and it is a new intro in the Proven Winners Perennials program. Now, down here where I garden in Texas, I can’t say we have a ton of luck with cultivated cranesbills due to our extreme heat and drought; but when planted here, they are best positioned in a dappled shade garden. I’m certainly willing, given its promise to be more “vigorous,” to give it a try in my tough Texas garden.

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’: This little bluestem has earned itself the coveted Perennial Plant of the Year designation for 2022, and for good reason. This tough clumping grass sports the most ethereal ice blue foliage, accented by red stems. As fall temperatures cool, each plant takes on its own “bruised” stem, offering a mix of colors from purple to blue to orange. The beauty of this blue stunner is that it thrives in poor soil and limited water. It’s an easy-to-grow water-wise perennial in full sun locations, if you’re willing to forego any extra TLC.

Amsonia ‘String Theory’: The light blue to periwinkle flowers sported by this compact cultivar look like tiny stars sprinkled over your garden. If you’re looking for a more compact and denser alternative to Amsonia hubrichtii, with the bloom power of A. tabernaemontana ‘Storm Cloud,’ ‘String Theory’ promises to deliver. It also promises to deliver dark green foliage all season long, instead of the chlorotic foliage so often present in the standard species. At only 18-22” tall, this compact blue beauty can move to the front of the border.

Purple punch

No bruise would be complete without a punch of purple in the mix. One of my favorite finds at Cultivate ’21 was the new Cake Pops line of tuberous Verbena rigida, with purple clearly a standout color-wise. This is a species that is quite at home in my tough Texas gardening climate, but it can become a bit of a beast. So, I was excited to spot these cute round mounds of compact Cake Pops in containers in the New Varieties area of the show. The compact mounded form lends them to both the front of the border and containers — not to mention hanging baskets. Hey, a V. rigida hybrid might be one of the few things that can survive a Texas summer in a hanging basket without 24/7 irrigation. I’m here for it. OK, I realize that as far as the Zone 5 Mafia is concerned, this plant is an annual. But, for the entire southern half of the country, this species is happy to stick around year after year.

Lest you worry I’ve forgotten the disconcerting chartreuse colors that often make for a good shiner, I encourage you to check out the new and intriguing Jurassic Fern series, all of which look to offer up yellow-green to chartreuse foliage colors, perfect for bruisy contrast in the shade garden.

My advice for 2022? Just make sure to keep a few bags of frozen peas handy.