Dear Readers, first of all, Happy New Year, and indeed Happy New Decade. Although technically the next decade doesn’t start until 1st January 2021, I am not strong enough to swim against that particular tide, and anyhow, I can wish you all Happy New Decade again next year. Let’s hope that it brings us all a measure of peace, inspiration, and a whole truckload of kindness, to ourselves and to one another. Something tells me that we’re going to need it.
And now, back to the Wednesday Weed. Black-leaved plants are extremely rare in nature, and are even unusual as cultivars – most of the so called ‘black’ plants are actually deep purple or very dark green when looked at closely. Black lilyturf (known as black mondo grass in North America) (Ophiopogon planiscapus) is different – its leaves really are black, and in a recent study it was suggested that the leaves are similar in colour to the flat black samples often used by paint companies. However, there is also a green-leaved variety of the same plant, and this has been used in the formal beds in Regent’s Park to create some interesting effects.
Black lilyturf is neither a lily (though for a while it was included in the lily family) nor a grass. It is a member of the Asparagaceae or asparagus family, which is an enormous gathering of plants, and includes Liriope, which I mentioned a few months ago as being very popular with the landscape gardeners of the City of London. The plant comes originally from Japan, but because of its distinctive colour it has become a feature of both formal beds and shady gardens. It produces rather pretty white flowers, but only after it has become well-established.Looking at this plant raised a number of questions. Why are black-leaved plants so rare in nature? Do they have some kind of disadvantage when compared to green-leaved plants? The study that I referenced earlier was also intrigued by this question, and so the scientists involved grew both the green and black-leaved cultivars (which are pretty much genetically identical) in a range of environments, and measured growth rates in both. It was found that the green-leaved plants had a slight advantage in strong sunlight, but that the black leaves helped to protect the plant against the effects of excessive light, which could cause free radicals which damage the plant. In the shade, green leaves seemed to confer no advantage. So, in short, it isn’t clear why there aren’t more black-leaved plant communities, especially as there are plenty of black mosses and liverworts. It’s one of those fascinating questions that could lead to all sorts of new discoveries about the way that plants use sunlight.
The genus name Ophiopogon literally means ‘snakes beard’, and the plants are widespread throughout China, Korea and Japan. One species, Ophiopogon japonicus, is known as mai men dong in Chinese, and is widely used for ‘nourishing the yin of the stomach, spleen, heart and lungs‘. It has beautiful dark blue berries, and is also a popular garden plant.
But back to black lilyturf. One of the most spectacular examples of its use as a bedding plant has to be from 2012, when Kew Gardens used it as one of the Olympic rings.
The other rings were made from blue garden lobelia (Lobelia erinus), yellow marigold (Tagetes patula), green apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) and red pelargonium. It was created as a backdrop for the torch relay which passed by on July 24th, 2012, and over 20,000 plants were planted in the five days that it took to create the display.
If you prefer to use black lilyturf in a less colourful setting, however, you can combine it with other dark and dangerous plants as recommended by the Facebook group ‘Goth Gardening‘. I am pleased to see that one of my other favourites, Aeonium Zwartzkop, is suggested as well. A black garden might be rather splendid, especially with some suitably Gothic statuary and maybe a resident bat colony. And if you want to see what a full-blown Gothic black-planted garden looks like, you can see a very fine example here.
And finally, a poem. As you can imagine, finding poems that mention Ophiopogon are hard to come by, as are poems featuring black lilyturf. However, I have expanded my horizons as usual, and came across this poem from the Zhou dynasty in China, which lasted from 1046 BC to 256 BC. The poet is unknown, but the poem comes from The Book of Songs, a collection of 305 poems which was thought to have been compiled by Confucius. The music has been lost, but the lyrics give us a window into another time and place. The grass is almost certainly not ‘our’ grass, but I hope that the both the specificity and the timelessness of the poem make up for it.
All the grasslands are yellow
and all the days we march
and all the men are conscripts
sent off in four directions.
All the grasslands are black
and all the men like widowers
So much grief! Are soldiers
not men like other men?
We aren’t bison! We aren’t tigers
crossing the wilderness,
but our sorrows
roam from dusk till dawn.
slink through the dark grass
as we ride tall chariots
along the wide rutted roads.
Photo One by Meneerke bloem [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Photo Two by By Alpsdake – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65369067
Photo Three from http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:538935-1