Sunday, November 15, 2009

Plants for the Grim Gardener

“Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices for the Garden”
By Paul Bonine
ISBN No. 978-0-88192-981-2
How’s this for two words you’d never expect to use together: black plants. No, not the oil-slick shrubs and trees that got major ink in the media when that pipeline burst in a residential area of Vancouver a few years back but actual healthy, thriving plants that just happen to be, well, black. And not the bark-black or brown-black of certain wall flowers or cedars, but the black-Black-BLACK of debt or death. Is there such a thing? Well, according to this surprisingly original gardening book there are actually 75 such things, each of which gets a colour picture, a paragraph and the moisture and light requirements it needs to survive. The Hillside Black Beauty bugbane, for instance, likes “part sun” and “light shade” and – perhaps given the stress of being the only black plant in a garden of rainbow colours – drinks a LOT of rainwater. The book goes on to say, almost with the same relish that Poe wrote about his raven, that the bugbane sports black “lacquered” leaves “as ornate as the carved designs on a piece of Moorish furniture.” As for why some plants are black, science says it likely has something to do with either compounds the plant creates to protect it from sunlight or some pigment-particular genetic trait.
The book suggests that including a black plant in your garden can give the space the mystery and depth of a Dutch realist painting. I think gardeners are more likely to use big black plants to put a period on where their garden ends; kind of like Nature’s Edge. Regardless, whether you use black plants in your garden or put the book “Black Plants” on your coffee table you’re guaranteed a conversation piece.
In Margaret Atwood’s futuristic “Oryx and Crake” much was written about the Chicken McNuggets of the future coming from a genetically modified headless bird. The idea of black plants is similarly sci-fi distressing. In a culture where even funeral flowers are colourful and cheerful, a black plant (black – that metaphor-heaviest of colours) that’s alive and flowering seems downright inconceivable. Can we – should we? – stop and smell the flowers if they’re black? But then again, maybe I’m reading too much into the existence of black plants. It’s not like nature is trying to tell us something. Uh, right?