A Truly Black Dahlia
Ginger Clack of Mrytle Creek, Oregon was in her garden about five years ago when a pretty little black flower waved at her. "It just waved at me," she says. "My heart was racing. I waved back."
It was a hell of a hello.
Black flowers are rare in nature -- and the reason is simple. Flowers weren't put on earth to look good in a vase or to create nice combinations in our gardens or to make silly humans smile or to say 'I love you' or 'I'm sorry' or 'Happy Birthday' or any other sentiment. Flowers exist simply to attract pollinators to a plant. It's all about sex. Survival of the species is what matters. And black blooms, it seems, are not a turn on to buzzing bees and other pollinating insects. They prefer red and yellow and white.
But humans keep trying to create black flowers. What is it that makes us want what we can't have? Why do we have to one up Mother Nature? Of course, when it comes to black flowers, mostly all we've done is come close. I mean Basil St. John has been on the trail of black orchids since 1945. And in 1850, Alexandre Dumas wrote The Black Tulip about one man's obsession with an elusive flower. Actually, Queen of Night, introduced in 1940, remains the standard for black tulips -- even though it's more mahogany than midnight.
It's the same with other flowers. Iris Superstition is really dark purple and Dracula's Shadow is deep violet. Hemerocallis Starling is more maroon than black. Fritillaria persica is burgundy. Chocolate cosmos is chocolate. Rosa Black Magic is often billed as the deepest darkest red rose ever. A black hyacinth named Midnight Mystique took the Chelsea Flower Show by storm two years ago, but even its Dutch hybridizer was quoted in The Guardian as saying "it's impossible to create a truly black flower -- there will always be a touch of purple or magenta."
Which brings me back to Ginger Clack. Ginger claims she has what looks to be the first black dahlia. "We've had lots of dark purples and reds that are close," she told me over the phone. "But this one -- we've been showing it and they think this is the closest there's ever been to true black. It's so dark you can't see it against a black cloth."
She sent me the pictures to prove it.
She knew it was special the minute she saw it waving to her. "The bees did the work and it just showed up -- a small single black flower that wowed me." She nurtured that original seedling -- gathering seeds in the fall and overwintering them, then growing and watching and evaluating the next generation and the next. "It's always exciting when you see something special," she said. "One out of a thousand dahlias might be a good one."
Ginger knows her dahlias. She and her husband Ronald have been growing and hybridizing them for more than 25 years at Clack's Dahlia Patch, their 200-acre hay and timber farm, where just over an acre is devoted to their favorite flower. They've introduced about 20 varieties, including this mini cactus dahlia in shades of pink and yellow that they named Shea's Rainbow after their granddaughter. "But we cut back this year," she said. "We're down to 3,500 dahlias. I'm 65, my husband is 69. We grow them all ourselves."
Right now they're concentrating on cultivating their black dahlia so they'll have between 80 and 100 to sell in the fall. Ginger named it Ebony Star -- "because that's what it is."
"The really good news is that it has to have sun," she said. "It gets even darker when it grows in the sun, which is very unusual. And we can take the black gene and get the big dahlias and the doubles. I'm just so happy about it. Of course, if I came up with a blue one that would really be something. There's no blue gene in the dahlia world. I haven't even tried for it. But this black dahlia is special. It's big news. It's a real event in the dahlia world."
Photos courtesy of Ginger Clack