Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, also known as black lilyturf, black mondo or black dragon, is an evergreen perennial native to Japan. Despite having a grass-like appearance, it is a member of the Asparagacaea family, as is the similar grass-like Liriope muscari. ‘Ophiopogon’ comes from the Greek ‘ophis’ meaning ‘serpent’ and ‘pogon’ meaning ‘beard’. The name presumably alludes to the linear leaves being the beard of the snake or dragon. ‘Planiscapus’ refers to the flattened scape or flower-stalk ending in a loose raceme of lilac flowers and ‘Nigrescens’ to the black colour of the foliage and scapes. In summer, after the flowers fade, blue to deep purple berries develop leading to the French name ‘Herbe aux Turquoises’ also referred to as the ‘barbe de serpent noire’.
Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ can be a tricky plant to use in a garden situation. Its deep purple/black foliage when used sparingly or dotted through planting can look straggly and disappear into the undergrowth. At its best, en masse, it is an attractive groundcover plant adding a deep saturation of colour to a design and setting off brighter, lighter colours well. It makes a pairing with plants with silver foliage like Stachys byzantina or, in my garden, Lychnis coronaria and Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tormentosum) and looks stunning alongside plants with orange foliage such as Libertia peregrinans and Carex testacea.
Ophiopogon also works well in erosion control, binding soil with its rhizomatous roots, and it thrives in containers. I’ve used it successfully in pots with dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’) and white violas as a winter combination and last year I underplanted my French lavender (Lavandula stoechas) with ophiopogon, then dog violets also colonised the pot. A rather random combination, but the silver and black foliage alongside the purple flowers looked attractive and the ophiopogon is increasing, a sure sign that it’s happy in its environment.
Containers with ophiopogon in my garden in autumn, spring and summer
Ophiopogon prefers full sun to partial shade, moist but well-drained soil and likes neutral to acid soil (but it seems to do fine in my alkaline front garden). So whether you want some foliage interest in a container or larger scale groundcover impact, the black serpent’s beard with flattened scapes is a good way to add some lustre to your garden this year.
More images of ophiopogon in Regent’s Park border designs