When I visited the historic garden of Hidcote in Gloucestershire, England, more than twenty years ago, one aspect that really impressed me there was the use of dark foliage in the borders. The most dramatic example was in the Red Garden, where these leaves were grown near to brilliant scarlet flowers, creating an unforgettable combination. It was the first time I had ever set eyes on Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff', which with its bright red flowers and dusky foliage epitomised the Red Border in one plant. Up till then, my focus in gardening was on flowers, and I thought of leaves as simply a green sea of background for blooms. I certainly took a greater interest in different coloured leaves upon my return home from that trip, and now I cannot imagine my garden without them.
I am immediately drawn to any plant described as having 'dark leaves', but there are certainly gradations of duskiness in foliage. The nearest to black are the giant elephant-ear leaves of Colocasia 'Black Magic' and the thin strappy foliage of black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'). Others have a burgundy hue, such as that seen in the purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'); next comes a rich purplish/deep chocolate colour, as found in some Iresine cultivars and Alternanthera dentata. Others are closer to bronze-purple, such as some Phormium cultivars. Other leaves have dark markings on a green background, which I also really like.
Coleus (Solenostemon cultivars) offer many of these, and those with attractive dark markings look effective placed nearby solid dark foliage. I have previously mentioned how valuable coleus cultivars can be in our Sydney gardens - at this time of year they can start to look a bit scruffy. I never prune them now but I sometimes take the precaution of striking a few cuttings and keeping these protected during winter, as sometimes a very cold winter can kill the plants. The cuttings will take root even in a jar of water placed on a windowsill. Rhizomatous Begonia feature cultivars with dark leaves - either all-dark or variegated. 'Kara' (ht 60cm) is a beautiful example with big, ruffled, chocolate-hued leaves and there are many others, including 'Blackie' (ht 30cm). The dark-marked ones are very attractive, too and offer interest in dry shaded areas where there often may be very little else to cover the ground!
One of my favourite shrubs with dark-tinted leaves is in fact a cultivar of a native plant: Austromyrtus 'Blushing Beauty'. It grows about 1.5m tall and with small neat burgundy leaves on a dense, rounded bush 1m wide. The colour is especially beautiful when the brilliant new foliage emerges in spring but it keeps its dusky good looks all year round. It needs no special treatment and just gets better and better each year as it grows to maturity. The shrub can be clipped into a formal shape if desired. In my opinion, 'Blushing Beauty' is more than an adequate substitute in Sydney for the dark-leaved Berberis, which has long been the darling of English gardens. In the photo here, I have two specimens planted together to produce a wider mass.
Another suitable evergreen shrub with similarly coloured leaves the so-called fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense), which has dark-leaved forms (f. rubrum). The foliage of some of these tends to turn green in summer, after a wonderful burgundy flush in spring, but others seem to keep the hue throughout the year. The flowers of the dark-leaved form are pink bunches of fluttering spidery petals. The shrub tends to develop a wide, horizontal shape, with a height usually given as around 2m though in time it may grow much higher and assume the proportions of a small tree. However, it can be successfully clipped to keep it more compact.
Flax (Phormium) are dramatic, architectural plants from New Zealand, with a fountain of bold strap-like leaves and there are cultivars of a purple-bronze hue, which look effective in the garden. Heights vary, with the bronze and 'Purpureum Group' forms of of Phormium tenax growing 1.5-3m tall; there are more compact hybrids such as 'Bronze Baby' (ht 70-100cm). Phormium cookianum cultivars are generally also compact and include deep-coloured forms such as 'Merlot' and 'Platt's Black'. They are generally tough, low-maintenance plants that will endure most conditions once established, though their preference is for moist, well-drained soil.
Dark leaves really do add an extra dimension to any planting scheme, but with such an emphatic colour, a little goes a long way, and it would probably be a mistake to fill up your whole garden with it, as this may produce a very sombre effect! I like to use them as a dramatic contrast here and there in the garden, to liven up a dull border. The leaves definitely need to be placed near a contrasting colour, or they will just disappear against the colour of the earth. I still do love the sultry combination of dark leaves with bright red: either scarlet or crimson, and the effect also works with bright orange flowers, as seen here with a Canna cultivar. Another pairing I like is dark leaves with lime- or gold-coloured foliage or flowers - that really has a zing to it that gives me a thrill whenever I see it. A plant that has this combination itself is Euphorbia x martinii 'Blackbird' (ht 60cm), which I have just acquired and hope will do well in Sydney.
I have also in recent times developed an area of my garden that mixes dark leaves with crisp white flowers, silver foliage, and variegated white and green foliage, and I am very much enjoying the results of this scheme. The background shrub in the border is the beautiful burgundy-leaved Euphorbia cotinifolia, which I have previously praised in my blogs and which is now double the size shown in the photo here.
I hope other gardeners enjoy dusky leaves as much as I do. I also love near-black flowers, but that is another story!
18 Oct 20
Although my garden is semi-tropical in nature now, I still have some vestiges from my cottage garden days!
11 Oct 20
Consider training a shrub into a small tree.
04 Oct 20
October is iris time in Sydney gardens: the best are the tall bearded irises and Louisiana irises.
One crowded hour
27 Sep 20
Much can be achieved in regular short stints in the garden.
20 Sep 20
We may not be able to grow massed displays of tulips in our climate, but try some of these South African corms instead.