BLACK EYES, BIG HEART – E. Ginsburg

BLACK EYES, BIG HEART

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Elisabeth Ginsburg

Reference books tend to damn the common Black-Eyed
Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) with faint praise. “A weedy biennial of North America,”
says one, disdainfully. “Probably the most common of all American wildflowers”
says another. Just about the best thing that most authors can think of to say
about this native plant is that it is the state flower of Maryland. If you took
these references to heart, you might come away thinking that this prolific late
summer bloomer is some kind of horticultural trollop.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Black-Eyed
Susan has many virtues, not the least of which is its “commonness”.

When I was little, my grandmother, a lover of flowers,
used to pick scores of Black-Eyed Susans from a vacant lot up the hill from our
summer cottage. She took off all the leaves and arranged the stalks in a squat
green glass vase, so that the blossoms formed a tight golden-orange and black
ball. The effect was joyful and abundant, and the show went on for days.

Black-Eyed Susan is a part of the huge and far-flung
Asteraceae family, whose members are distinguished by their daisy-like flowers
and generally winning ways. Of course, the flowers are a natural complement to
their horticultural cousins, the late summer and fall-blooming asters. In
August and September there are few things more beautiful than goldenrod, wild
chicory, New England asters and Black-Eyed Susans blooming in close
proximity.

Perhaps because the plants are so common in the wild,
I have never had the cultivated Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) in my
garden. I have certainly installed its relative, purple coneflower, but I have
just never been moved to buy Rudbeckia fulgida. The species, especially the
best-selling cultivar ‘Goldsturm’, is almost as ubiquitous in the home garden
as Rudbeckia hirta is in hedgerows and other unclaimed spaces in the Eastern
two thirds of the United States. It is, of course an extremely reliable plant,
forming large clumps within a few years, and requiring almost no attention from
the gardener. The fashionable landscape designers Wolfgang Oehme and James Van
Sweden use Rudbeckia fulgida extensively in their stunning naturalistic
planting schemes. Others, with less talent and imagination use the species here
there and everywhere because it is cheap and easy.

After seeing vast quantities of both wild and
domesticated Black-Eyed Susan, I think that I prefer the wild form. The flowers
are fewer and smaller, because the plant has not been hybridized to produce
mass quantities of large blooms. Fortunately, what Rudbeckia hirta lacks in
quantity it makes up in quality, not to mention subtle charm. Clumps of it
would be effective interspersed with other species in a naturalized part of the
garden. If you could arrange it so that your Black-Eyed Susans arise from
clouds of lower-growing plants, all the better. Their stems are rather banal,
and their leaves are nothing to write home about.

This is not to say that someday I may not break down
and put some Rudbeckia fulgida in my garden. While I am at it, I might also
invest in Rudbeckia laciniata, a species that I saw listed in one of the
specialty nursery catalogs. It shares the same yellow petals common to other
Rudbeckias, but instead of the black “eye” in the middle, it has a greenish
yellow central disk.

For those inveterate crafters who like to dry things
for fall and winter arrangements, the various Rudbeckia are a godsend. The
petals do not last, but if you collect the stalks as soon as the petals fade,
you can dry the central disks or cones to use later. Just be sure not to wait
too long, or they will foil your plans by going to seed, and those seed-bearing
centers will disintegrate.

If you want to purchase Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’
you can walk, drive or hitchhike to the nearest garden center or mega
merchandiser. They are bound to have some just about any time except the dead
of winter. Rudbeckia hirta is definitely not endangered, but it is probably not
a good idea to dig it from the wild. Instead, keep your hands clean and order
seeds from one of the various vendors of wildflowers. The seeds are tiny,
1,450,000 per pound, so you can probably make do with less than an ounce. Once
planted they will self-seed, eliminating the need to worry about buying more.
In fact, the only thing that you will have to do is watch out for “volunteer”
Black-Eyed Susans springing up in places where you would prefer to have
something else.

One thing to remember-there is a plant in commerce
that frequents the garden centers calling itself “Black-Eyed Susan Vine”. This
is not a Rudbeckia at all, but a Thunbergia with a passing resemblance to
members of the Rudbeckia clan. Buy it, plant it, pot it and hang it, but do not
confuse it with the real thing. Mother Nature never intended Rudbeckia to hang
from a hook on the porch.

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