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.
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg