Dark side of the bloom: how spring turned black

A new fashion for flowers is striking a bold posy in garden centres

A A A

It sounds like a thriller, or perhaps a novel by Alexandre Dumas pere. In fact, the black petunia is this year's bedding plant sensation, going on sale nationwide in garden centres and plant catalogues this week.

Petunia Black Velvet, to use its official name, is the latest in a series of black-flowered or dark-leaved plants to come on to the market.

These dusky cultivars are increasing in popularity, as gardeners – who are as susceptible to fashion as any teenager – experiment with new colour schemes and styles. So how do you get a black flower? It's not really black, of course, but a very deep purple or red. The colour is created by anthocyanins – the pigments that create red, purple and blue colours in flowers and fruit. These are present in every part of the plant, including the stems, leaves and roots. They also act as antioxidants, which is why fruits that are high in anthocyanins, such as blueberries, are labelled as superfoods.

In plants, however, their purpose is mainly to attract pollinators (in the case of flowers) or animals, which will eat the fruit and disperse the seed in droppings.

Commercial breeders will cross varieties with high levels of anthocyanins to increase the level of the pigments in either the leaves, the flowers or the fruit.

It takes a huge amount of experience and patience to breed a new plant, said Stuart Lowen, marketing manager of Ball Colegrave, who developed Petunia Black Velvet.

"We're always trying to push the boundaries. The public always want something that's a novelty, but sometimes the breeder will come up with a colour that the market just isn't ready for," Mr Lowen said. "Black is the holy grail for plant breeders, though. Everyone wants black plants."

It took four years for Ball flower breeder Jianping Ren to develop the black petunia. "The black colour did not exist in petunias before, so it has to come from the right recombination of a novel colour mutant and multiple regular colour genetic backgrounds," she said. "It is very different from breeding true blue flowers because at least there are some blue flowers you can start with. It's unique and unusual, and opens the door for more new colours."

The trend for black flowers and leaves has grown in the past 10 years, perhaps reflecting the popularity of a more minimalist style in garden design.

Against a dark background, such as a fence, or a hedge of evergreens, black foliage or flowers will disappear. Contrasted with gravel, stainless steel, or painted surfaces in pale colours, however, black looks wonderfully dramatic.

Petunias originate in South America and will not survive a British winter, so they have to be treated as annuals – lasting only one season. But there are perennials and shrubs with black leaves or flowers which are descended from native British species.

Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing, for example, is a black-leaved cow parsley, while Sambucus nigra Black Lace is a sultry version of the native elder. Viola Bowles Black is a black pansy and Althea nigra represents the dark side of that cottage-garden favourite, the hollyhock.

Anna Pavord's verdict

*Anna Pavord, The Independent's gardening correspondent, is wary of the all-black look. "Everything depends on the texture of the petal. If it is all matt, it's hopeless. If it has the sheen of the most expensive satin (as black tulips do) black can shine. But for that, you need light. Black in shade is as cheerless as yesterday's mascara."

Graham Rice, author of Discovering Annuals and editor-in-chief of the RHS Encyclopedia of Perennials, said: "With dainty white bacopa, with lime-green coleus as a background or with Helichrysum 'Limelight' snaking through it, or with other petunias in yellow, deep red or white – there are plenty of options."

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little