Black-eyed susans are blooming in the meadows and along the roadways in west Kentucky right now. Most of us are familiar with the golden, sunny petals and the distinctive 'black' centers. Many nurseries and garden centers offer them, but this North American native is at home in the wild, as much as in a cultivated garden. It is native to the east and central regions of North America, but has naturalized across the rest of the continent and also Europe and Asia.
Rudbeckia hirta is a tough little number and is often one of the first plants to grow after a fire or other disaster kills more fragile plants. Linnaeus named it for his honored teacher, Olas Rudbeck and it has been well-known in Europe for several hundred years and English sailors most likely gave it its common name; black-eyed susan. There is an old poem by John Gay about a black-eyed lass searching the docks for her sailor that we can point to:
All in the Downs the fleet was moor’d,
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came aboard;
‘O! where shall I my true-love find?
Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true
If my sweet William sails among the crew.’
English gardeners often grow the two plants together to honor the poem and because the Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan) and Dianthus barbatus (sweet william) bloom at the same time there and make for a lovely display.
Black-eyed susans have been designated as the official State Flower of Maryland and adopted by the famous second leg of the Triple Crown horse race. The Preakness awards the winner a garland of black-eyed susans. However, since the race is run before the flower blooms in Maryland, the garland is actually made from a similar appearing chrysanthemum that volunteers paint black centers on the night before the race.
Native Americans were very familiar with this plant. The roots have similar medicinal qualities as its cousin Echinacea purpurea and were used to treat respiratory infections, ear aches, swelling and even snake bites. The flowers produce a greenish or olive toned dye, although the color must be coaxed from them by boiling and steeping several times before adding your yarn or fabric.
Plant black-eyed susans in a sunny bed with good drainage. They are short-lived perennial or biennial plants, so to maintain the planting, allow some of your flowers to go to seed to always have them around. The blooming period is about 3 weeks, however deadheading the spent blossoms should prolong the show a few more. Butterflies and bees are attracted to the flowers and goldfinches adore the seed heads, so they make an excellent choice for a wildlife garden. They are a host plant for the Checkerspot butterflies too. Deer tend to avoid them unless there are no other choices available as well. They are hardy in USDA zones 3-11, so cold winters and hot summers don't seem to affect them, but they prefer an acid soil with organic matter as opposed to the alkaline soils of desert climates.
If you'd prefer something a little showier or longer lasting than the basic species, black-eyed susans have been hybridized and there are a number of choices available with larger blooms or deeper colors. Unlike the coneflower cousins, these colors only tend to be in the gold, brown, red and orange spectrum, but make for a lovely display. Don't look for any pink ones. If you want those, choose the coneflowers. Black-eyed susans also make a good choice for a cutting garden and shed very little pollen or debris when added to an arrangement. Very few pests bother this plant and except for a tendency to powdery mildew in humid conditions, it is pretty care-free.