Friday, July 6, 2018

Black Plants





16 years ago my girlfriend Haruko became my wife...and lucky me. She has improved my life and has also become famous in the community as an energetic volunteer, friend and counselor to many. Not only that, she is raising two incredible female children – not an easy task with their ages at 12 and 15 – but also she tends to her old husband to make sure he stays healthy and pleasant.






My favorite color: black


When we married she applied for her green card to allow her to remain in America, and so we went before a Judge-Woman of some title to obtain the American stamp of legitimacy, of legality. I assumed that we would be interviewed separately and asked personal questions that marriage-of-fraud or convenience would not be able to answer. For example: What did I eat for breakfast? What kind of music did I listen to? What was my favorite color? I coached my spouse that my favorite color was black, which surprised her. Alas, the Judge-Woman didn't ask us anything, and after she stamped the form we exited the federal building like two giddy lovers who got away with something.

Daughter Saya, actually facing the camera

So why black? I explained to Haruko that black does not exist to many as a color, that they think it is the absence of color actually. I don't agree – when I close my eyes I don't see red or blue. In the winter the majority of hours are dark, not white or pink or orange. At least in their youth, most humans on earth have black hair, not other colors. For me, black is a complement, a color that combines well with all other colors. White-and-black is great on the piano, black-and-white is cool and sophisticated in film and photography, and pictures are usually contained securely within a black frame. Our recent black USA President was a huge mistake, but at least we had to give it a try.


Abies koreana 'Green Carpet'

Abies lasiocarpa 'Hurricane Blue'


It is thought that tribes from the past – though there is no written evidence – used the Proto-Indo-European word bhleg for “black,” a word meaning “burn.” Later it became phlegein in Greek and flagrare in Latin, then the old English speakers (Anglo-Saxons) used the term blaec. What is confusing to modern scholars is that the word blac could also mean “white” or “bright.” I go through the same headache with my Japanese wife when she says that the word ao can mean “green” or “blue.” Huh – wait a minute – green and blue are very different; how can one word – ao – mean either color? She has explained it a dozen times before but it never really sinks in.





























Robinia pseudoacacia 'Unifolia'



St. John in the wilderness
Black is a common name for some groups of plants. Robinia pseudoacacia is the “Black locust,” although its bark is reddish black and gray. It is called a “locust” due to Jesuit missionaries who supposed that the Robinia was the tree that supported St. John in the wilderness; the problem with that assumption is that it is native only to North America.* R. pseudoacacia has naturalized now in many parts of the world where it is usually considered an invasive weed. Locust leaves are compound, which means that each leaf consists of smaller parts call leaflets. These leaflets fold together in wet weather and at night, and the night closure, known as nyctinasty, is characteristic of Leguminous plants. The earliest recorded observation was made by Androsthenes when he noted the closing at night of the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica). The genus name Robinia honors French botanist Jean Robin (1550-1629).

*The locust tree of the New Testament is probably Ceratonia siliqua (Carob tree) which is native to Syria and the Mediterranean basin.
























Alnus glutinosa 'Imperialis'


Alnus glutinosa 'Razzmatazz'



Alnus glutinosa is commonly known as the “Black alder,” and it is native to Europe, northern Africa and southwestern Asia. It is a medium-sized, short-lived tree that tolerates poor or wet soils. I'm not sure why it is called black alder because the bark on young trees is greenish brown and on older trees it is dark gray. As the specific name glutinosa implies, the young green leaves and shoots are sticky with a resinous gum. It was first described by Linnaeus in 1753, and he thought it was a species of Betula (B. alnus), with alnus being the Latin name for alder. The word alder originated from Old English alor, from Old High German elira. I have grown only one cultivar of the monoecious A. glutinosa – 'Imperialis' – which I propagated by grafting onto our Oregon native A. rubra. One should graft low as the scion's caliper doesn't keep up with the rootstock. Another cultivar I have seen in the Sebright Garden is 'Razzmatazz', and it looked like fun so I bought one.

Picea mariana 'Aureovariegata'

Picea mariana 'Horstmann's Dwarf'


Picea mariana is the “Black spruce,” so-named due to dark cones and dark blue-green foliage, and indeed it was once known as Picea nigra. It is native to northern North America, from Newfoundland to Alaska, and mostly in Canada and in all three of the Arctic Territories. P. mariana can look scrappy in its native range, but then it has adapted to swamps in the boreal forests.* We propagate a couple of P. mariana cultivars, 'Aureovariegata' and 'Horstmann's Dwarf', by grafting onto Picea abies, and these grow well in either containers or in the field.

*“Boreal forests” generally refer to the more southerly part of the biome, and “Taiga” refers to the more barren areas of the northern part. The Taiga is the world's second largest biome (a major ecological community type) with the largest being the oceans.

Pinus thunbergii 'Kotobuki'

Pinus thunbergii 'Yoshimura nishiki'
Pinus thunbergii 'Nishiki tsukasa'





























Pinus thunbergii is a species that is found near the sea around the coasts of South Korea and the Japanese islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. It is the “Black pine”* while other Japanese natives like Pinus parviflora is the “White pine” and Pinus densiflora is the “Red pine.” The specific name honors Carl Peter Thunberg and was coined by Filippo Parlatore (1816-1877), an Italian botanist. We sell P. thunbergii into USDA zone 5 (-20 degrees) areas, but I think that our Pinus sylvestris rootstock allows them to survive, and I suppose that on its own roots zone 6 (-10 degrees) is more accurate). One very attractive cultivar is the dwarf 'Kotobuki', and according to my wife the name means “celebration,” “rejoicing” or “happy event.” The species is known for its silky white buds and they look like decorative ornaments among the pine's dark green foliage. The same is true of 'Thunderhead', but it is more open and grows three times faster than 'Kotobuki'. 'Nishiki tsukasa' and 'Yoshimura nishiki' were selected for their rugged looking trunks and they make good bonsai subjects.

*Kuro matsu in Japanese. Kuro means “black” and matsu means “pine.”

Rhododendron 'Black Magic'


There are a number of plant cultivars with “black” in the name, one such is Rhododendron 'Black Magic'. Its red blossoms are more dark than on most other red-flowering rhododendrons, but they are hardly black. The hybrid was made in 1982, with R. 'Jean Marie de Montague' as the seed parent and R. 'Leo' as the pollen parent.

Camellia 'Black Magic'


We also grow a Camellia 'Black Magic', my start coming from Roger at Gossler Farms Nursery in Oregon. Well, it's not black either, but the blossoms are deep dark red and appear very glossy. The large double flowers are so heavy that they droop downwards, but that's not a problem when the shrub gets large. The deep color is a nice backdrop for the flower's bright yellow stamens, and the serrated green foliage attractively resembles a holly. 'Black Magic' is new for me but it has been around for a long time. Nuccio's Nurseries of California introduced it in 1962.

Magnolia x 'Black Beauty'


Continuing with “black” cultivar names, we have Magnolia x 'Black Beauty' which is also far less than black. Actually it is a selection of M. x brooklynensis which is a hybrid of M. acuminata and M. liliiflora which was first raised at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1954. What is nice about the blossoms is the dark purple exterior and the contrasting pale white interior. Our trees bloom prolifically from late April to early May and it has become a good sales item for us.

Zantedeschia 'Black Star'


Diego Rivera - The Flower Seller, 1942
Zantedeschia is the “Calla lily,” a tuberous perennial in the Arum family. Sometimes you see 'Black Star' listed a species elliottiana, and other times as a hybrid, but in any case it is patented so we can't propagate it; besides the South African and eastern Africa genus is only hardy to USDA zone 8 (10 degrees F). It is thought the word calla is from Greek kallos for beauty, and it sure is easier to pronounce than Zantedeschia.* To many, especially in Mexico, white calla lilies symbolize purity and holiness and they're depicted in images of the Virgin Mary. They are also symbols for rebirth and resurrection because they bloom about the time of Easter.

*Linnaeus named the calla lily but it's a misnomer for it is not a true calla nor is it a true lily. The error was corrected by the German botanist Karl Koch when he renamed the genus Zantedeschia after the Italian botanist Giovanni Zantedeschi (1773-1846).

Fagus sylvatica 'Black Swan'


Fagus sylvatica 'Black Swan' is a weeping tree with dark purple foliage. I think the “swan” part of the name is due to the crook at the top of the tree resembling a swan's neck. Latin fagus is derived from Greek phegos for an “oak.” The common word beech is from Middle English beche and that from old High German buohha. In modern German the word for “book” is buch, with buche meaning “beech tree.” Therefore Buchholz means “bookwood” or “beechwood,” and I have been to the town of Buchholz in northern Germany near Hamburg.

Aeonium arboreum 'Schwarzkopf'

Aeonium arboreum 'Schwarzkopf'


Aeonium arboreum 'Schwarzkopf', the “black rose,” is not very hardy (25-30 F) but it is a fun succulent with very dark purple leaves. When in flower the yellow clusters hover over the dark foliage presenting a striking contrast. The species is native to the Canary Islands where it can grow up to 4' in height. There is controversy about the correct name of 'Schwarzkopf' because it is not certain where the plant originated. The cultivar name means “black head,” so 'Schwarzkopf' if in Germany, or 'Zwartkop' if it originated in Holland. In any case it received the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit in 1993. The generic name Aeonium comes from the Ancient Greek aionos for “ageless,” and the genus is a member of the Crassulaceae family. The word crassula is from Latin for “thick” or “gross.” Think crass.

Capsicum annuum 'Black Pearl'


The English word pepper is from Greek piperi, and that from Sandskrit pippali for “long pepper,” and botanically black pepper is Piper nigrum. Also known as “pepper” is Capsicum annuum, and when Columbus discovered it in Caribbean gardens he wrongly assumed that Capsicum was the same as Piper. Capsicum was one of the earliest plants cultivated in the Americas, and there's evidence that it was used as food in Peru at least 8,000 years ago. Now it is an important ingredient found throughout the world, and you also have idiots who compete with eating the hottest of the chili peppers, and that is the “ghost pepper,” or bhut jolokia from the mountains of northern India. Eating one ghost pepper would probably kill most of us, but a recent winner, a 34-year-old dentist from Kentucky, ate a dozen of them on national TV. For what it's worth, he has red hair, but his colon no longer terminates with an anus.

Capsicum annuum 'Black Pearl'


Anyway, the first time I saw Capsicum annuum used as an ornamental was at the North Carolina Arboretum where the cultivar 'Black Pearl' was used effectively in a mass planting. In spite of the specific name annuum which means “annual,” 'Black Pearl' is an herbaceous perennial and is hardy from zone 4 to 10. Besides the glossy black foliage, its black fruit matures to red, and they are known to be extremely hot. The genus name Capsicum is from the Greek word kapto meaning “to bite.”

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Nigra'


The Japanese Hydrangea macrophylla should not be confused with Hydrangea aspera 'Macrophylla', even though the former's name indicates a large leaf. We used to propagate and sell the cultivar 'Nigra' but discontinued because Hydrangeas are considered low-value plants because big nurseries can grow them by the thousands. I still keep one in the collection and in winter I admire the nearly black stems. 'Nigra' has a “mop-head” flower so it is placed in the Hortensia group of H. macrophylla.

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'


Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' is the “Black Mondo Grass,” an herbaceous perennial in the Asparagaceae family, and its grass-like blades are very black if grown in full sun. Small white-to-pink flowers bloom on leafless stems that rise above the foliage. They aren't much, but they are followed by glossy pea-sized purple berries. The name ophiopogon is derived from Greek ophis meaning “serpent” and pogon meaning “beard.” Planiscapus refers to the flattened scape or flower stalk; for example a tulip blooms atop a scape (from Latin scapus for “shaft”). Mondo grass is also commonly known as lilyturf, but the “mondo” name is an earlier genus name of unexplained origin, and it certainly is not a Japanese name. Ophiopogon's name in Japan is koku ryu, meaning “black dragon.”























Acer palmatum 'Black Hole'


Acer palmatum 'Jet Black'


I am also guilty of naming maple cultivars with black in the names. Two recent introductions are Acer palmatums 'Black Hole' and 'Jet Black', and their foliage color is more accurately dark purple. 'Black Hole' originated as a seedling from the mother tree of 'Purple Ghost', and while some veining is visible the darkness prevails. 'Jet Black' was selected about the same time as 'Black Hole' but I don't remember its seed parent – perhaps it was 'Purple Ghost' as well. While my employees are hard working, there is a limit in how much they want to mentally invest in the company. That a named cultivar is different from its seedling offspring is a concept that they have decided is TMI – too much information – and I am being unnecessarily precise when I point out that their labels are not correct. It would be easier to leave the seedlings as unidentified instead of a label that reads: Acer palmatum 'Seedling from Purple Ghost', for example. They will never be interested enough in plants to read this blog – “I just work and you pay me mon.”

Paeonia 'Black Panther'

Viola lutea 'Blackout'


Iris 'Black Suited'

Iris 'Blackwater'


Other black plants that the reader might want to seek out include Paeonia 'Black Panther', Viola lutea 'Blackout', Iris 'Black Suited' and Iris 'Blackwater'.






















Rhododendron blackii


Finally I'll mention Rhododendron blackii which I have never grown, having only seen it in the conservatory at the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden. It is a Vireya* rhododendron in the Section Envireya and it displays red tubular-shaped flowers. The species was collected in Papua New Guinea at an elevation between 2500-3300 m and was named for Michael Black of England.

*Vireya is a common name now, for the Rhododendron Section that contains them is now botanically known as Schistanthe.



Good night – turn off the lights.

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