Black flowers and vegetables are rare but not unknown

February 28, 2018

Along with rationing during World War II came the inevitable "unauthorized dealing" or selling of scarce rationed goods, the first widespread use of the term "black market.”

Black is not the first color to come to mind when gardening. Black flowers and vegetables do indeed exist, though they are a bit of a black swan. Take the Black King Pansy (Viola x wittrockiana), whose large, satiny petals are a deep coal black. Planted in masses they are even more impressive.

Somewhat lighter thanks to a sparkling white edge is the fragrant Black and White Minstrels Dianthus (Dianthus chinensis). These flower with completely double blooms of such a dark maroon, they appear jet black. The white edging on each petal makes it less somber.

The tall bearded iris Before the Storm is another dark-purple, almost black flower. These are drought-tolerant plants that need very little water once established, making them suitable for xeriscaping. And somewhat rare for an iris, Before the Storm has a sweet fragrance.

The familiar coral bells is joined by an all-black Obsidian Coral Bells or Heuchera Obsidian (Heuchera sanguinea). Obsidian grows into a mound of large, smooth black leaves along with tiny, charming flowers every summer. This hardy plant grows well in the garden or even potted up into large containers. It is one of the few ornamental plants that can be grown in full shade.

Plants can do double duty, and be both ornamental and edible. The Black Beauty elderberry (Sambucus nigra Gerda) is just such a plant. It is quite stunning, with deep purplish-black leaves. The umbels of pink flowers develop into very edible elderberries. Elderberries can be made into juice, jelly, pies and wine. The fragrant flowers with their hint of lemon flavor can be dipped in batter and fried into fritters.

The black garden now goes underground with the Black Spanish Round Radish. This ancient radish dates back to the 16th century in Europe. It has crisp, white flesh that is a bit fiery hot. It is large, for a radish, measuring up to four inches. Once grown for its medicinal properties, it now makes a good storage vegetable.

Another black root vegetable is the Black Salsify Scorzonera, an heirloom growing in America since the 1700s. These carrot-like roots have striking pure black skin. Inside they are snow white. These aren't sweet like carrots, but are usually cooked and enjoyed for their more earthy taste.

All popcorn pops white, but the Dakota Black Popcorn (Zea mays) is stunning even before it pops. The deep-black kernels are unusual and attractive enough for decorations. It is ready to harvest in just 95 days, so it can be grown almost anywhere. This hardy heirloom has proven itself over the years.

Black tomatoes are a whole new category of heirlooms. Black Cherry Tomato is a prolific producer of round, dark garnet-black tomatoes. These sweet orbs have a big tomato taste and have developed a loyal following.

Even peppers can come in black. Midnight Dreams Bell Pepper is an almost ebony-black sweet pepper. The compact plants are good producers of traditional four-lobed bell peppers. Traditional, that is, except for the stunning true black color.

So black flowers and black vegetables are hardly a black swan, the proverbial expression for something as rare or nonexistent as a black swan. Unfortunately for linguists but fortunately for naturalists, the genuine black swan (Chenopsis atratus) was discovered in Australia. All things are possible.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.