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Plant Profiles: Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'

Ophiopogon Planiscapus
Ophiopogon planiscapus

Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Sophie owe Logan, Dan escape us, wry lesson

Black mondo grass

Evergreen ornamental grass, 6 inches

Sun to part shade, more lush with moisture but incredibly versatile

No real enemy, just faster spreading when mulched and given adequate water

Why garden without it?

Evergreen ornamental grass

Black. Who knew. It lacks hue and is as dull as can be. But whether in leaves or in flowers, it may well be the trendiest turn-of-the-millennium color.

Consider what's happening in retail. Wayside Gardens in Hodges, South Carolina, has introduced 'Hillside Black Beauty'; a three-inch pot of this dark-leaved Cimicifuga will run you twenty-five big ones. Brothers Herbs and Peonies in Sherwood, Oregon, is pushing 'Black Panther', a hundred-dollar tree peony with flowers the color of dried blood. Gossler Farms & Nursery in Springfield, Oregon, offers a blue-black, hand-pollinated hellebore at twenty-five dollars for a two-galn pot. The blacklist goes on.

If you're new to hort noir, there are plenty of heartthrobs from earlier fads, including 'Black Magic' elephant ears, 'Black Gamecock' iris, 'Black Barlow' columbines, 'Bowles' Black' pansies, and the much-loved 'Queen of the Night' tulips.

But most of these named selections are pretenders to the dark throne; close, but no scepter. Any lover of black plants worth his Faustian soul would trade them all for Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', black mondo grass.

Whether named 'Ebony Night', 'Arabicus', or 'Black Dragon' this is what you've got: a clumping perennial in the lily family that spreads by underground stolons to form a slowly creeping, ever-green groundcover, unfazed by severe cold (we call that zero in the Northwest; otherwise hardy to -10 degrees F).

Black mondo grass is the ultimate conversation piece because no one can believe it's really black. Fact is, some of my texts insist it's a dark, dark purple. But I'll tell you what: It's the same color as my stapler, telephone, calculator, and coffee-maker, and I daresay that if there were any black licorice in the house, my mondo's quarter-inch-wide, eight-inch-long leaf would hold its own.

This versatile, spidery plant has other ornamental attributes: dainty, bell-shaped, purplish-white summer flowers, followed by lustrous, blue-black (and slightly camouflaged) fruit. It's happy in sun to part shade, and though it likes moisture, mine has learned to cope with drought.

But the best thing about black mondo is, ironically, the way it can light up the garden, making yellows, oranges, limes, and silvers all the more audacious by providing a contrast that is positively surreal. Some classic combos include black mondo amidst yellow creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea') or golden hakonechloa (H. macra 'Aureola'); alongside orange sedge (Carex testacea) and blue-leaved hebe; or amidst pewter-lined heuchera and painted ferns (Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum').

To make the most of your mondo, use liberal mix of humus and humor. Don't worry about overdoing it; in the dark days of winter, there's simply no such thing as too much fun.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.