(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 28, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Aunt Bett taught me everything, she was an excellent teacher, but there was a time or two when I did a few things my own way. The day of the butterflies was one of those times. Memories are funny things. When I remember growing up in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, flowers of all kinds bounce around in my mind. It could be because I gathered so many different flowers with Aunt Bett and learned wondrous things about each one of them. I made clover chains to decorate my hair, I used flower dyes to paint my face and hair and any other body part that needed decorating. I hung flowers from the rafters, I placed them in jelly jars filled with water. I made corsages and crowns and pranced around like a princess. Flowers were my whole life there in the mountains. My favorites were usually blue, but I dearly loved black-eyed susans. There was something about them that always cheered me up and made me smile.
Rudbeckia hirta was most common in the mountains, though there were other varieties as well. It isn't uncommon to see them growing along medians all over Kentucky these days, most likely because black-eyed susans were named the 2007 Flower of the Year in Kentucky by the wildflower enthusiasts. Aunt Bett told me all those many years ago that the Native Americans used the root of the flower for tea to treat worms, colds, and externally as a wash for sores, snakebites, and swelling. The root juice was used for earaches. Since she had a great deal of respect for what the Native Americans believed, she used the black-eyed susan for the same remedies.
Black-eyed susans are very easy to grow, they like well drained soil and will even thrive in clay soils and will grow in full to partial sun. They are a favorite of butterflies and songbirds, and if you have the space you can use them to create a little wildlife habitat in your back yard. They are pollinated by bees, wasps, and other insects. Several different butterflies like this plant and the Pearl Crescent is one species that perches on the high center of the bloom and is attracted to the yellow color. If you plant them with purple coneflowers, maybe some asters and a butterfly weed or two, you are sure to attract songbirds and butterflies, as well as creating a beautiful cutting garden. The blooms will last from May through September.
Now that you are very well informed, let's go back several years to Aunt Bett's yard. I have mentioned many times that if it didn't have a purpose, Aunt Bett had little to do with it. She had a soft spot for me, though, and she knew that I dearly loved to decorate especially for her. Actually I am not sure it was a soft spot she had, it was more like a tolerance. So I asked her one day if I could plant some black-eyed susans in her yard. I really doubt that she paid a lot of attention to what I was asking, because she just nodded her head and went right on tinkering around in the garden. The black-eyed susans grew along the creek that ran along the side of her garden behind her house. All I had to do was jump over the creek with my trusty garden spoon and dig up a few clumps, bring them back and plant them wherever I wanted. I wanted to plant them by her front and back doors. So I did.
By late summer those few clumps had taken on a life of their own, they had spread across the back of the house as well as the front, and most of the time they were covered with butterflies. Now I knew for a fact that ants did not tread where black-eyed susans grew. The bristly hairs on the stems make it nearly impossible for ants to pass, so I thought I was doing a favor for Aunt Bett by keeping the ants out of her kitchen. One day when she was tidying up the last of her vegetable garden, I was back at the house getting my usual drink of water. There was nothing like the taste of a dipper full of cold water from Aunt Bett's well located right in the middle of the back yard. OK, stop here for a minute and picture this: Aunt Bett did not have screens over her windows or her doors. The front door stood open to let the air flow straight through the house and out through the open back door. The huge trees in front kept the air cool, so her house was really comfortable even on the hottest summer day. I noticed hundreds of black swallowtail butterflies floating around the black-eyed susans that were still in full bloom as I left the house, and I remember thinking that they sure were pretty dancing around on a bed of yellow flowers. I went on back to the garden to help Aunt Bett.
She didn't have much left to do, so we finished up and pretty quickly walked through her back door into the kitchen. Let me tell you, that kitchen was alive with black swallowtail butterflies, just flitting around checking everything out. Aunt Bett just stood there, frozen, and not a hair on her head moved. So did I. She finally opened her mouth to speak just as one sat right down in the middle of that white hair. I giggled, then laughed right out loud and did a little dance in the middle of the kitchen floor. My sudden movement caught those butterflies by surprise, or maybe it was my giggles that did it, because they all gathered up in a group and proceeded to float right on through the house and right out the front door where they stopped for a minute to kiss the front yard black-eyed susans good bye. Finally Aunt Bett breathed again. "Well I never in all my born days ever seen a sight like that," she said.
I never did either.
Years later when I was deciding on a name for my daughter who was to be born in the middle of July, the black-eyed susans were again in full bloom in my back yard. What do you think I named her? Well, what else could you name a beautiful little black eyed girl? Susan is her middle name, and she still has those beautiful black eyes.
Thank you, Ashley Susan, for being such an inspiration.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Photographers: MossRose, nausved, and leo_grrr.