Thumbs Down on “Black Plants”

October 19, 2009 | By | Comments (20)

Wouldn’t you think that a new book called Black Plants would restrict itself to black plants? You would and I would, but not the folks who published it, Timber Press. That’s one of the reasons the Grump is black-listing this effort.


Black plants 001

Maybe I’m just picky, but I don’t think red flowers and yellow flowers and blue flowers qualify as black, even if Timber Press thinks they do. So why would they publish a book about black plants in which a lot of the plants aren’t black?

I haven’t any proof, but I would guess Timber Press thought the concept of black plants was so intriguing that they were determined to beat everybody else to the punch. So they immediately commissioned such a book, instructing its author to write about 75 plants with either black flowers or black leaves. There was just one little problem. They couldn’t get their hands on 75 quality photos of black plants.

Hmmm. What to  do? I know! Let’s put in photos of non-black plants and tell people they’re black! People are dumb! They’ll believe anything.

And so we get photos celebrating the blackness of plants such as these:

Black plants 003

Lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus inapertus). Where’s the black?

Black plants 004

Snakesbeard iris (Hemodactylus tuberosus). Where’s the black? Little dark-purple spots on yellow flowers don’t count.

Black plants 005

‘Chocolate Pot’ painted tongue (Salpiglossis ‘Chocolate Pot’). Where’s the black? Just because some marketing guy names a plant “chocolate” doesn’t make it black.

Forgetting for a moment the misleading title, the second bone I have to pick with this book is lack of useful information for people living in warm climates. Discussion of hardiness is restricted to cold-hardiness; nowhere will you learn how much heat the plant will take. Many of the plants are finicky plants meant for the collector, not the average Joe. Moreover, the vast majority of the photos are headshots of whatever plant is claimed to be black, so you rarely see a plant in garden context, showing how it may be effectively combined with other non-“black” plants. I don’t blame first-time author Paul Bonine for this. I’m sure he brings a lot more horticultural knowledge to the game than Black Plants (160 pages, $14.95)exhibits. He simply has to produce what the publisher wants.

What I can’t understand is why Timber Press, arguably this country’s most productive, respected, and successful garden book publisher, chose to produce this. Was it the economy? Did they desperately need a book they could sell for less than $15, as opposed to their hallmark — luxurious, beautifully photographed, expertly written coffee table books that that sell for $40 or more?

I don’t know, but in the future, I hope they will remember the following points.

1. Dark blue isn’t black.

2. Dark red isn’t black.

3. Dark green isn’t black.

4. “Chocolate” isn’t black.

5. Purple isn’t black.

6. Bronze and burgundy aren’t black.

As Mick Jagger might have sung if he reviewed this book, “I see a red bloom and I want it painted black.”


  1. Karen Platt

    Fern @ Life on the Balcony is attempting to trash me because I am the person who ran the first nursery specialising in black plants and wrote the first books and rejected Timber Press’ contract. She has written this stuff all over the internet, openly admitting she does not know me, has not read my books, but that she really wants to trash me. She does not even consider that many articles written on black plants have had my input and many professional authors have recognised this. Naturally I have not made any silly comments to anyone. Your Excellency most people are taking her comments down and not giving her air time. I have had to issue a cease and desist notice to her, as her obsession with me and trying to trash me has gone too far. I’m not entering into any discussion with her, but since she posted here, people have a right to know the truth.

    November 19, 2009 at 2:31 am
  2. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    The Grump, of course, seeks to avoid ALL controversy. Therefore, my next book will be called “Green Plants.”

    November 10, 2009 at 7:34 am
  3. pinkdog

    Black Magic and other plant colour books by Karen Platt can be purchased for $20USD

    November 9, 2009 at 6:59 pm
  4. Patrick FitzGerald

    Good points made by all. I guess the title Black Plants is the contentious piece in a lot of books on this genre of plants. I’ve dabbled a bit in the black plant area going back more than a few years. In fact I just came accross this review while dabbling with this blog piece
    It’s always interesting to see varying opinions to observe niches within the world of plants. Its posible that us plant people are unique in our interpretation of colour. The point about the plant itself being possible to grow is important in context of enjoyment. Maybe we are better off not defining the term Black plants too tightly or maybe some bright person out there should come up with a better term than Black Plants. In fact maybe the use of the term right from th start was where the original misdirection took place. Words can be so devisive and colour descriptions equally so. A good topic for debate or something to be just left to the individuals interpretaion. I do worry when we put things in plant world into restrictive boxes and loose focus on the objective of gardening or get into debates as to who did what first. Best just enjoy and not put plants too much into wee boxes, then maybe we avoid misfit terminology?

    November 8, 2009 at 7:10 pm
  5. Fern @ Life on the Balcony

    Don’t fall for Karen Platt’s BS. She doesn’t have a “situation.” She thinks she is the only person who is allowed to write about black plants and is currently trashing any author who dares to discuss the same topic.

    November 2, 2009 at 4:49 pm
  6. Graham Rice

    There’s a slide show of black(ish) plants over on my Transatlantic Plantsman blog ( (Declaration of interest: we supplied some of the pix in the slide show for Paul Bonine’s book.)
    But don’t forget that it was Karen Platt (see earlier comments) who fired up the enthusiasm for black plants.

    October 31, 2009 at 5:00 pm
  7. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    Don’t worry. His Excellency is quite fond of your country and looking forward to becoming King one day.

    October 31, 2009 at 11:00 am
  8. Karen Platt

    Thank you Your Excellency,
    and please don’t be put off my my being a Brit, my original color books were written for the American gardener with USDA zones. I worked with a US propagators and have spent many happy weeks in the US.

    October 30, 2009 at 4:31 pm
  9. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    The Grump agrees with you. Anything can be “hardy,” but hardy where? This is probably a case of a garden center buying plants from a wholesaler that operates in a milder climate. Without having hardiness zones specified, saying “hardy” is useless.
    I’m familiar with your situation. Why don’t you send me a link so readers can see how to order your book?

    October 30, 2009 at 10:07 am
  10. Karen Platt

    In 2000, I brought out the first book on ‘black plants’. Now in its 3rd ed in print and 4th ed as an ebook from my website only, this book set the trend for black plants. I spoke often on the West coast of America. I have now described over 3,000 ‘black plants’ often better referred to as dark. Please remember few plants are black as coal, it is the tones that render them useful in the garden, and black is an umbrella term for all plants dark. By the way, I rejected Timber Press’ contract in 2001 to write for them, which is why they have been working their way through my published list of books since that time. Buy the original books please.

    October 29, 2009 at 4:57 am
  11. Emmit up north

    your comment about the necessity for describing heat tolerance is apt. Here in Ohio we have very long summer days and we can get up to the upper ninetys in the summer as well as below zero in winter, so both pieces of information are vital. While we’re about it. How about the habit of nurseries labeling zone 7, 8, and above plants as “hardy” I really think that there should be a point where it would be called false advertisement. I would suggest that insteadd of the meaningless and often misleading term “hardy”, they be required to give zone tolerances, with the lowest zone as a limit on cold tolerance and the upper zone as the limit on heat tolerance

    October 29, 2009 at 3:10 am
  12. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    It’s the miracle of marketing. Find a lavender rose and call it blue and you sell a lot more. Same thing goes for black flowers.

    October 23, 2009 at 1:37 pm
  13. Beth at Unskinny Boppy

    I’ve also seen alotta “blues” that are really purple. What’s up with all the mislabeling? It’s very un-PC! hehe

    October 21, 2009 at 3:32 pm
  14. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    You mean spray-painting them with black Krylon? An excellent idea!

    October 21, 2009 at 3:08 pm
  15. Richard S. George

    With a little ingenuity, you can make them black — and heat tolerant as well!

    October 21, 2009 at 2:41 pm
  16. Jean

    I saw one review of this book and they seemed to agree with the book. I remember when the first “black tulip bulbs were advertised. They were close to black but really a dark purple.
    A supposedly black rose called Black Baccaro was used in a wedding this year but they were nothing but burgandy. We always get calls for black roses. Go figure.

    October 21, 2009 at 9:59 am
  17. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    You are truly the Angel of Death.

    October 21, 2009 at 8:00 am
  18. Allison

    Aw, Steve….cut ’em a break. We call a black eye a black eye, when it’s really kinda greenish, purplish, red…
    I’m just saying…Besides, if you let me take care of ANY of the blooms in this book, no matter what color they start out, I can guarantee you they’ll be black (and dead!). LOL. Happy Halloween.

    October 20, 2009 at 1:54 pm
  19. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    I can see your point about Timber targeting this for Halloween, I guess, but it would have been better made using everyday plants that are really black than obscure collector plants the average gardener has little chance in finding that aren’t black.

    October 20, 2009 at 8:06 am
  20. Pam/Digging

    I pegged this book as an affordable, attractive gift book marketed for Halloween-time. It’s perfect for selling at the garden center next to Amy Stewart’s “Wicked Plants,” which also works well for Halloween.
    I agree about the lack of usefulness for those of us in warm climates. As for the non-black plants that are included, they are indeed a stretch to be called black and would have been better served to be labeled as plants that would pair well with darker ones.

    October 19, 2009 at 9:37 pm

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