Black and Orange: Not Just For Halloween
Don't Let the Hues Scare You in the Garden

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

Who could argue with nurseryman Tony Avents's take on Halloween? "Tacky," he calls it. In my neighborhood, the suburban landscape is littered with tawdry coffins, headstones and, in one front lot, a macabre life-size skeleton sitting on a chair. The boxwood and Japanese hollies are draped in a white spun material. Cobwebs; get it?

Actually, no, I don't. I'd rather see the late-season garden die in its own dignified way, without the plastic props. However, the colors of Halloween, black and orange, offer a chance to play in the garden, and not just at this time of year.

Black or near-black plants (really a thick accumulation of purple pigments) have grabbed the attention of breeders in recent years. Black Pearl is a newish variety of ornamental pepper that is now widely planted and distinctive for its dark leaves and glossy black fruits. I love the black forms of elephant ears, especially an alocasia variety named Black Velvet, with pronounced white leaf veins.

The British seed company Thompson & Morgan created a stir last year with its introduction of a black hyacinth, Midnight Mystique, though it has vanished from the catalogue this year because of limited supplies.

Two distinctively different plants take my award for having the blackest flowers, even if they're just piling on the purple. The first is a light-grabbing form of viola, variety Molly Sanderson. This is a cool-season annual that is pretty for Halloween and through the fall. The other is a woodland perennial, a jack-in-the-pulpit from Japan called Arisaema sikokianum that grows to 18 inches high in late spring. A central white part of the flower rises like a marshmallow from the center of a black chalice. It's quite a novelty.

Deep purple may be the new black, but orange, on the other hand, is the real thing. It is a hot color and thus a shouter, but it is no longer considered a coarse hue in the flower bed.

Talented gardeners I know favor it because it's available all season long (from the first orange tulips to the lingering orange cosmos) and pairs so well with its complementary blue-flowering companions. I have grown orange-flowering plants through the years, but not enough of them. The past few weeks, I have been drooling over orange flowers in gardens from here to New Jersey.

Orange seems to come into its own as the growing season winds down, and not just from pumpkins. A number of dahlia varieties love to glow in the cooler conditions of September and October.

I am drawn to natural, single-flowered dahlias, and one offered by Avents's mail-order nursery, Plant Delights, is called Terracotta. It is on my list for next year. Avents calls it a "bronzy orange" rather than the clear, saturated orange of pumpkins or the scarlet-orange of certain plants. Its dark stems and foliage make it seem brighter than it is and give it extra drama.

I'm also ready to shell out $12 for a tuber of David Howard, a fully double dahlia, again with dark foliage, with lighter orange outer petals spreading from a brighter orange center. I could see it planted between low-growing blue-flowered shrubs such as the aster Raydon's Favorite or the caryopteris Petit Bleu.

Another mail-order nursery, Swan Island Dahlias, offers orange varieties, from the subdued Peanut Brittle to the large, brassy Punkin Spice. Dahlias are started from tubers in April and set out in May in a sunny location with rich soil and may need staking.

If you like softer oranges, the Heronswood catalogue offers intriguing plants: a single-flowered dahlia called Heronswood Melon and a diminutive begonia species named Begonia sutherlandii, growing to eight inches and adorned with small orange blooms. Hardy officially to Zone 8 to the south of Washington, it might make it through a local winter in a protected urban garden. The nursery also sells a delicate Spanish poppy named Tangerine Parfait. It would survive as a perennial in a well-drained bed.

Annuals, however, provide their own rich source of orange blooms. Orange cosmos, often used by highway departments for a roadside splash of orange in early fall, work just as well in a sunny, free-draining bed in the garden. Again, it's a plant to pair with blue- and purple-flowered stalwarts such as asters, caryopteris, buddleia, obedient plant, campanulas and salvias.

I never thought I would warm to marigolds, but Disco Orange is an eye-catching flowering machine, low-growing and smothered in blooms for most of the growing season. It can be started from seed indoors in early March and set out in May.

Of all the orange blooms in the garden, none is richer or purer than the orange of the California poppy, or eschscholtzia. The petals contain a singular type of carotenoid pigment called eschscholzxanthin, hard to pronounce ( ess-shultz-zan-thin) but lovely to see. Sow the seeds now in garden beds for a spring show that often repeats in the fall.

Orange cosmos can be sown now as well, but save some seed for sowing in April or May as insurance against winter losses. Emilia is a delightful long-season annual with beautiful orange-scarlet buttons on wiry stems. Like the cosmos, a warm-season annual, the emilia can be directly sown in mid-spring when soil temperatures begin to climb. My friend Janet likes to keep some seed in reserve to sow when the emilia first blooms, to bulk up the show and keep it flowering all season.

Orange varieties of gazania abound. Orange Beauty and Oranges and Lemons provide the desired hue for months and are still going strong in late October.

In high summer, the orange craver finds satisfaction in stalwart perennials such as daylilies, Asian lilies and the butterfly weed, the last a magnet for that most orange (and black) of butterflies, the monarch.

Roses, too, offer periods of orange blooms from May onward. I used to grow and love the soft-orange classic rose Buff Beauty, mostly for its sweet scent. A friend pointed out a new introduction called Vavoom, far more orange. It is a low-growing floribunda that promises a lot of orange with a little care.

But the last word has to go to a gladiolus -- no, not that funereal, flopping dinosaur in your grandma's garden, but a five-foot species called Gladiolus dalenii from Plant Delights. The variety is called Halloweenie because it doesn't begin to bloom until this week. If you suffer from early frosts, you might never get to see the flowers, which are scarlet-orange with yellow throats. Or, in Avents's words, "a truly tacky plant for a tacky holiday."

Sources of orange and black plants: Plant Delights Nursery,, 919-772-4794; Heronswood Nursery,, 877-674-4714; Swan Island Dahlias,, 800-410-6540.

Vavoom is grown by Weeks Roses, a wholesale grower that gives retail sources on its Web site,

Arisaema sikokianum is available from Asiatica, (no telephone). California poppy seed is available from Johnny's Selected Seeds,, 877-564-6697. Emilia and orange cosmos seeds are available from Thompson & Morgan,, 800-274-7333.

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