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BASIC BLACK

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

I’m not quite sure why plant breeders endeavor to create plants with black flowers. Black roses, iris, tulips, orchids, pansies, and petunias… what’s the attraction? Perhaps black flowers are perfect for ‘goth gardeners’ who wear black clothes, gloves, hair and makeup, but what about the everyday gardener. Why black flowers? I suppose it’s the novelty of having a plant with black flowers.

Perplexed about the attraction of black flowers, I’ve decided to give them a try this spring and purchased a new petunia called ‘Black Velvet.’ I have it planted in a black pot with the Proven Winner, Diamond Frost euphorbia. I’ve dubbed the theme of this planter ‘a black tie affair.’

Breeding new colors of petunias isn’t easy. It usually takes about two years of breeding efforts to develop a new color, but Black Velvet took longer. Ball Company breeder, Jianping Ren, took four years to come up with this very dark petunia.

Black Velvet is not a trailing ‘spiller.’ It develops an upright, mounded habit growing from eight to 12 inches high and wide. It’s supposed to bloom early in the season and remain covered with sweet-scented flowers most of the season. Supposedly heat and drought tolerant, it should be easy to grow with no deadheading needed to keep it blooming. Black Velvet’s flowers are described as ‘charcoal black,’ but in bright sunlight you’ll see that they’re actually a very, very deep purple. However, in most light they do indeed look black.

An interesting problem that some gardeners have experienced with this petunia is the development of yellow striping. The Ball Company explains that this can happen especially when there are abrupt changes in the environment, such as suddenly going from cool, cloudy weather to hot, sunny weather or from dry soil to wet soil. Once these conditions even out, the totally black flowers should return. I hope so, because with our fluctuating weather my Black Velvet has developed these yellow stripes.

It’s said that ‘everything goes with black.’ So while I’ve paired my Black Velvet with the delicate lacy white flowers of Diamond Frost euphorbia, combinations with bright pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows promise to be eye-catching.

Breeders have also developed other plants with ‘black’ flowers. There are a number of ‘black’ iris varieties, such Superstition and Black Tie Affair, but these are varying shades of dark purple, not truly black. Dahlias touted as having black flowers, such as Arabian Nights, tend to have dark red to burgundy flowers. The day lily called Starling has deep red to cinnamon brown flowers. The Hollyhock called Jet Black or Nigra has very dark red-brown flowers that are almost black.

Gardeners have long lusted for black roses and black tulips, but have still come up short despite the valiant efforts of plant breeders around the world. Black Baccara, a hybrid tea rose introduced by Meilland in 2000, comes close when the buds first show some color, but the dark buds open to a dark blackberry reddish hue. An interesting rose, but not really black. Queen of the Night, a single late spring tulip, has flowers that look black in the right light, but in bright light their deep maroon color is revealed.

The only other successfully black flower that I’ve seen in addition to the Black Velvet petunia are black pansies. One cultivar that truly looks black is Black Magic. These show up in the fall at local nurseries to be paired with orange pansies for making a container garden with a Halloween theme.

I suppose the great quest for black flowered plants will continue, but I still have to wonder, ‘Why black flowers?’

Published: 6/29/2012 2:40 PM

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