Just what is a Chocolate Garden?
A Chocolate Garden theme creatively uses plants that either emit a chocolate scent and/or have foliage or blooms in dark, rich, color tones in shades of brown, bronze, burgundy, maroon or deep-purple to almost-black. Chocolate Garden selections are similar in color to dark chocolate (with a hint of blackberry) or golden brown and bronze, like milk chocolate. These dark and dramatic tones look best when placed alongside vanilla, mint, or other pale or bright shades that enhance and contrast their unique color.
Karen Platt is a modern pioneer in discovering dark-colored plants. Her passion began in 1995 in England, and the next year she opened the first black plant nursery, in addition to traveling around the globe in search of more black plants. Karen founded the International Black Plant Society and in 2000 she wrote and published Black Magic and Purple Passion. Her first book started out small, listing 300 dark plants; by its third printing several years later, the black plants she describes had grown to over 2,750!
The interest in dark colored plants was developing around the world. In 2004, here in the U.S., Bill Schlicht and Marie Lincoln formed their business, the Chocolate Flower Farm, located in Langley, Washington. "As far as I know there was no awareness of chocolate plants or chocolate gardening before we started our nursery," says Marie. Up until then 'chocolate' plants had been referred to as 'black' plants.
After much media attention, the trend took hold in 2006 and is still growing. Judging by the many new chocolate plants introduced this year in just about every gardening category--trees, shrubs, bulbs, tubers, perennials, annuals, vines, etc.--it appears chocolate plants are desirable, dramatic, quite unique and have received the thumbs-up from gardeners and horticulturalists.
Gardener's Note: Not all dark colored plants are labeled as a "chocolate" color. You be the judge and let your senses determine what you think would be perfect for your Chocolate Garden.
Designing a Chocolate Garden
Chocolate Gardens are imaginative, creative and fun to design. Indulge yourself in creating a garden using plants best for your zone, soil, available light and space limitations.
Design Around a Focal Point
Large and taller chocolate plants, shrubs or even trees can serve as focal points in your garden design: plants such as the 4- to 8-foot perennial black cohosh (Actaea simplex 'Hillside Black Beauty') or the 8-foot-tall deciduous purple ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius 'Summer Wine'). A gazing globe, bird bath, fountain or garden art also lure interest.
Determine the Garden's Size and Plan
After selecting an area for your garden and determining its approximate size, plan the layout and select the plants.
Garden beds up against a wall or house are easy to plan. The design can be as simple as a row of cabbage palm Cordyline australis 'Red Sensation' with a splash of an ornamental sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas). Sweet potato vine is available in many varieties, but can be a challenge to maintain its form.
Dave's Garden (DG) member 'meintsm', of Phoenix, Arizona trims his sweet potato vine every week to keep it under control. He says, "If we have no frost, then I cut them all the way back in early spring and let them start again. I think the fact that they are in a raised brick planter makes them easy to control. But if they are not in a controlled area they would overtake everything in sight." Cultivars in the Sweet CarolineTM series such as, Ipomoea batatas 'Sweet Heart Red' and ‘Bewitched Purple', have smaller root systems and are less vigorous than some other varieties.
A fence, trellis or pergola add height and interest as well as support for chocolate scented climbers, such as Clematis 'Jan Fopma' - introduced in 2004 by Wim Snoeijer - with two-toned, rich purple, campanulate (bell-shaped) blossoms; or C. montana 'Wilsonii', with small creamy blooms; or the heavenly, pale-pink, 1953 hybrid - by G. Jackman and Son - C. montana 'Elizabeth' with her enticing chocolate fragrance.
Tall chocolate plants are a good accompaniment to vertical structures; layer them with plants gradually decreasing in height in the foreground to enhance the garden layout. Taller plant choices might include 36 to 48-inch Ornamental Millet (Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty') planted behind, shorter, 18 to 24-inch Chocolate daisy (Berlandiera lyrata) -with cheery yellow blooms, that are sure to brighten up the foreground, while emitting their sweet chocolate scent.
Selecting Chocolate Plants
Those living in tropical climates can grow a Theobroma cacao tree (the kind that produces pods for the multi-billion dollar chocolate industry). But, you don't need a cacao tree to have a chocolate garden.
In addition to the chocolate-colored and scented plants already mentioned, there are many rich and dark annual Coleus cultivars, in both trailing and upright forms. Coleus are spectacular in baskets, pots or directly planted in the garden such as the low-growing, 12- to 18-inch 'Garnet Robe'.
Other suitable chocolate garden-themed flowers include tall hollyhocks like Alcea rosea 'Nigra' and diminutive sweet williams such as Dianthus barbatus var. nigrescens 'Sooty' along with medium, 18 to 36-inch tall columbines like Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata 'Black Barlow'. A promising newcomer for the cutting garden is Gladiolus 'Belle de Nuit', new for spring 2009, with tall (up to 60 inches), elegant spikes of creamy and rich, dark velvet maroon blooms.
Peppermint-scented geranium Pelargonium tometosum 'Chocolate Mint' is suitable for growing directly in the ground or cascading from a container, raised bed or basket. An edible plant, it can be incorporated in many sweet and savory culinary delights.
Chocolate cascading plants also include Hoyas. Sometimes called wax plants, Hoyas belong to the milkweed family, Asclepiadaceae. Hoyas are suitable for growing in hanging bakets outdoors in tropical climates or indoors elsewhere. Consider trying the Australian waxflower Hoya australis or string bean Hoya, Hoya shepherdii with "...a slightly chocolate smell that gets more potent at night," according to a comment in DG PlantFiles by DG member 'tres_mal' of Lawrence, Kansas.
The Heavenly Aroma of Chocolate
Oncidium 'Sharry Baby' Encyclia phoenicea Clematis montana 'Wilsonii'
Odors vary for each individual, depending on sensory receptors in their genetic makeup. A chocolate scent to one person may smell like vanilla to someone else. Some people may or may not even be able to detect a particular scent. No need for concern; the drifting smells of vanilla, spice, floral or fruit through your chocolate garden are an added welcome.
Gardeners in a humid climate, or with a controlled area of increased humiditiy, may want to consider orchids with the heavenly aroma of chocolate, such as Oncidium Sharry Baby. This orchid is best left potted, so it can be taken indoors when necessary.
Other chocolate orchids include Encyclia phoenicea, a fragrant Cuban orchid that smells like chocolate, and Cattlianthe Chocolate Drop, which does not have a chocolate scent. According to DG member 'RUK' of Fairlawn, New Jersey, "The scent is a beautiful spicy floral."
Photo Credits: All photos used with permission, Copyright ©2009. All rights reserved by the respective individuals, as indicated on each photo.Thumbnail cover photo collage ©Wind; Salpiglossis sinuata 'Chocolate Royale' by 'Shirley1md'; Cabbage palm 'Red Sensation' by 'meintsm'; Cattlianthe Chocolate Drop Orchid by 'RUK'.
Special thanks to Peter M.C. Werner and the DG members who shared their PlantFiles photos:
Encyclia phoenicea Orchid Photograph ©Peter M.C. Werner.
Hollyhock 'Nigra' by 'Saya', Heerlen (Netherlands);Cabbage palm 'Red Sensation' by 'meintsm', Phoenix, AZ; Clematis 'Wilsonii' by 'bootandall', Blenheim (New Zealand);Sweet William 'Sooty' by'Happenstance'; Geranium 'Chocolate Mint' by 'PerennialGirl', Winnipeg MB; 'Sharry Baby' orchid by'Fauna4flora', West Palm Beach, FL; 'Chocolate Drop' orchid by'RUK', Fairlawn, NJ.
 Umass Extension, Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture, Production Guidelines for Four Crops-...Ornamental Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas). Accessed Jan. 15, 2009.
Click here for a List of Black (Chocolate) Plants posted by Organic Gardening. There are many more too!
Visit web sites of Orchid Photographer Peter M.C. Werner:
Further Reading:Dave's Garden Chocolate theme-week 2009
Marshmallows! By Darius Van d'Rhys
A Word About Chocolate, By Larry Rettig
The Coffee Bean Tree, By Sharon Brown
Inspiration in the Chocolate Garden, By Angela Carson
Searching for Chocolate Daisy, by Jill M. Nicolaus
Chocolate Lily Is a Wildflower Treat, By Kelli Kallenborn
The Chocolate Mimosa, By Geoff Stein