Flowering time: June
This is not just a rather unusual allium, but one of the very best. It is unusual because instead of being a round flower it is only about two-thirds of the sphere: an altogether more sophisticated twist on proceedings.
Allium ‘Firmament’ is quite new to the market and has rich, dark flowers, but with the added bonus of a slight tang of polished steel to the underside of the petals. The closest analogy would be to a really plump, newly picked bunch of black grapes with the slight silvery bloom still intact.
The leaves of alliums are pretty rubbishy, so it’s a good idea to try to hide them behind other plants. These alliums look at their best when hovering above the fresh greenness of newly emerging herbaceous plants.
Alliums are very good at seeding themselves, so if you don’t cut down the dying seedheads you may get a pleasant surprise a few years down the line.
02. Chocolate cosmos
Cosmos astrosanguineus “Chocamocha”
Flowering time: July-frost
A lot of plants are scented: in fact, some gardeners might consider it the most important attribute for a garden-worthy specimen. Most flowers smell of unspecific things – some a bit fruity, some a bit peppery, some a bit like granny’s bath salts, some faintly unpleasant and some spicy. Not often is there a specific, identifiable scent; however, Cosmos astrosanguineus “Chocamocha” undeniably smells of chocolate.
Chocolate cosmos has a fragrance that resembles a quite sweet, milky chocolate rather than a bitter, 80 per cent cocoa-solids sort. Children, of course, are fascinated by this and so asking them to sniff this plant can be an effective diversion from such traditional pursuits as pulling the cat’s tail or trying to fall into the pond. The flower is worthy of a spot in the garden, even without its scent, as it is captivatingly dark red with pretty blue-green leaves. “Chocamocha” is a compact variety and, as such, only grows to about 30 cm (12 in) high.
Chocolate cosmos won’t survive the winter in cold areas; the tubers should be lifted and stored in a frost-free shed until spring. As an extra insurance, plan ahead and take basal cuttings in spring.
Dahlia “Aurora’s Kiss”
Flowering time: July-frost
Dahlias can be admired on two levels: firstly, as a long-flowering and spectacular part of any border, and secondly as the horticultural equivalent of Olympic athletes. There are well-attended dahlia shows where varieties that are totally unsuited for normal gardens are wheeled out to much oohing and aaahing – for example, the Giant Cactus varieties that have flowers 25 cm (10 in) wide and look like sea urchins.
Dahlia ‘Aurora’s Kiss’ is a Miniature Ball dahlia: pretty close to spherical and with modestly sized flowers about 10 cm (4 m) wide. They consist of tightly grouped petals that look a little like one of those Christmas decorations that open out to form bells or Santa Claus’s tummy. This variety has the deep, rich color of carefully crushed mulberries.
In cold areas dahlia tubers should be spared the winter worst by being lifted and stored in a shed after the first frost. If you live in a borderline-cold area, or don’t have anywhere suitable to store tubers, covering them with a thick mulch should be enough protection. Good drainage is vital. Propagate plants by dividing tubers in spring.
Helianthus annuus “Black Magic”
Flowering time: July-October
We are used to yellow sunflowers; in fact, we are probably so used to them that they have become rather boring. France is full of fields of the things (mostly looking blackened and tired by the time we get to see them when on holiday), and children are endlessly entering competitions to grow the tallest one they can.
Helianthus annuus “Black Magic” is a different matter altogether: where the yellow one is coarse (although undoubtedly cheery in demeanor), this is more suave and sophisticated. It is the same color as a Mississippi gambler’s waistcoat and every bit as louche. Even the slight shagginess of the petals makes it look as if it has been up all night losing its pearl buttons in a smoky game of five- card stud.
The seeds are large and easy to handle and should be sown in situ in spring or, if you want to grow a monster, inside in late winter.
Iris “Ecstatic Night”
Flowering time: May-June
This might seem a little weird but there are some plants that look as if they would make the most divine underwear. This iris is a case in point.
The color of Iris ‘Ecstatic Night’ is the most decadent that Nature has ever invented; it is the color of the curtains in a Circassian bordello, of mulberry juice trickling down the chin of a Maharajah and of black cherry jam spread on fresh granary bread. The petals look like the most perfect
Florentine velvet and feel smooth and warm to the touch. They look wonderful in a border, and especially as an edging to a path.
All irises are hardy in the UK. They are best planted in late summer or early autumn in well-drained soil. Lift and divide clumps if they get too large, which should improve the flowering.
06. Pincushion Flower
Scabiosa atropurpurea “Chile Black”
Flowering time: July-September
Many really good flowers, like particularly plump and smiling babies, look good enough to eat. This is one of them, with its little bite-sized buttons that are made up of an aureole of petals that are the color of blackcurrants steeped in vintage port and which are peppered with white anthers that look like fine shavings of freshly picked coconut. (The anthers being the pollen-bearing part of the stamens – the male part – in a flower.)
Scabiosa atropurpurea “Chile Black” looks spectacular when set against the deep oranges and yellows of late summer. And the taste? I would hope that it would taste slightly chocolatey with a firm alcoholic undertow but, sadly, it would probably taste of dust, so it’s best to leave the whole notion safely in the imagination.
Scabious hate wet conditions and may perish in a cold winter. Collect seed in autumn as a precaution and sow it in spring if you lose plants. Take basal cuttings in spring.
Tulipa “Black Parrot”
Flowering time: May
The parrot tulips are the most over-the-top of all tulips. While most of their species maintain an aloof dignity, these throw caution to the wind and appear in public with mad, deranged grins and flyaway petals. They are like Barbara Cartland emerging from a spin dryer: frilly petals akimbo, fringes waving, tassels twirling and streaks of color racing through every pore. That said, Tulipa “Black Parrot” is extraordinarily conservative in comparison.
Sadly, there are others that do not exercise the same admirable restraint: one called “Estella Rijnveld” looks like a tornado in a raspberry ripple factory, “Gemma” is like an overweight welder in a tutu, and “Professor Rontgen” really should know better.
Tulip bulbs should be planted in November, later than daffodils and many others. They perform best in well-drained soil and should be planted about 15 cm (bin) deep. Ideally, all bulbs should be lifted after flowering and ripened in a greenhouse, ready for the next season.