Black-Eyed Susan Flowers: Facts About a Beautiful Plant

Last updated on January 4th, 2022

Black-eyed Susan flowers near my home

Black-eyed Susan flowers first appear in June where I live. They are a lovely sight. When they aren’t in bloom, I enjoy looking at photos of the flowers and being reminded of their beauty. The Italian Garden in Vancouver, British Columbia has a wonderful display of black-eyed Susans every year and is my favourite place to see the flowers. The garden contains sculptures representing characters from famous Italian operas as well as cultivated plants. The black-eyed Susan flowers can often be seen in more than one location in the garden.

The vibrant blooms can be seen at other spots in the Greater Vancouver area besides the Italian Garden. The flowers are usually planted in a large and attractive group and are pollinated by insects. Observing the plants and the actions of their pollinators can be an absorbing activity. In this article, I include facts about the plants and a possible reason for their English name.

Canio from the Pagliacci opera, the queen from the Turandot opera, and a display of black-eyed Susans in Vancouver’s Italian Garden

Black-Eyed Susan Plants

Two species in North America are known as black-eyes Susans. The scientific name of one of them is Rudbeckia hirta. This species is the most common one in my area, and according to the South Dakota State University Extension, it’s often the most common species in their part of the world as well. The other species that may be seen is Rudbeckia fulgida.

Both species of the plant belong to the sunflower family, or the Asteraceae. The family is sometimes known as the Compositae one due to the composite nature of the flower, which I describe below. The word Rudbeckia is derived from the name of Olaus Rudbeck, a Swedish botany professor who taught Carl Linnaeus. People who have studied biology likely know that Linnaeus created the system of assigning scientific names to organisms (though other people contributed to the endeavour). A scientific name consists of the genus followed by the species. Species in the same genus are similar to one another but also have some distinct characteristics.

Facts About Rudbeckia hirta

Rudbeckia hirta is endemic to eastern and central North America and is naturalized in the western part of the continent. It’s both a wild and a cultivated plant. The flowers are often displayed in groups in gardens and landscaped areas. They create a lovely splash of colour and are a magnet for bees, including honeybees. Their nectar also attracts butterflies and beetles. The insects are important agents of pollination. 

The “flowers” are actually composite structures. They each contain multiple smaller flowers, which are technically known as florets. The yellow, petal-like structures are the ray florets. The brown, central ones are the disk florets. The florets contain the reproductive structures. The overall structure of the inflorescence is attractive, but it has no scent that humans can detect.

The plant has a basal rosette of lanceolate leaves. The leaves have a pointed tip and wavy edges. The flowering stalks rise up from the basal rosette. Their leaves are narrower and more pointed than the basal ones. The leaves and the stems are hairy. The flowering stems may be as tall as three feet, though they are generally shorter. The central disk in the middle of the flower becomes raised and very noticeable as the flower matures.

I have never grown the plants myself, but when I observe them on my frequent walks I notice that they are growing in sunny areas or in partial shade. This habitat is what gardening sites suggest for the plant. The North Carolina Extension Gardener site referenced below says that the species has “moderate drought tolerance.”

Another view of black-eyed Susan plants in my part of the world

Facts About Rudbeckia fulgida

Rudbeckia fulgida also grows in the wild in North America and is also cultivated. It’s often known as a black-eyed Susan, but it’s also called the orange coneflower. It has smaller flowers than its relative. It’s sometimes preferred for gardens and landscaping because it looks very similar to its relative but is a herbaceous perennial. R. hirta is usually an annual and occasionally a biennial. Both species of Rudbeckia exist in the form of multiple cultivars, which may make identification difficult.

An annual plant lives for only one year, producing flowers and seeds before it dies. A biennial produces leaves the first year, flowering stalks and seeds the next, and then dies. A herbaceous perennial produces its leaves, flowers, and seeds in one year and then appears to die. Its below-ground parts continue to survive, however, and send up new shoots to repeat the life cycle in the next growing season. 

The South Dakota State University reference given below say that although some people say that R. hirta can be a perennial, it rarely is. It says that the new plants that appear where the previous ones grew last year most likely came from seeds.

The Nature of Coneflowers

Black-eyed Susans and their daisy-like relatives that also contain domed centres—such as species of Echinacea—are often known as coneflowers due to the rough or spiky appearance of the central dome. The dome does sometimes resemble a cone. In some plants in the group, the petals point downwards, which makes the “cone” more obvious.

I often see the attractive Echinacea purpurea, or the purple coneflower, planted beside black-eyed Susans, especially in the Italian Garden. The plants belong to the same biological family. The colour combination created by the flowers of the two species is attractive.

I found this beautiful display of purple coneflowers near my home.

Who Was Black-Eyed Susan?

The name of the plant apparently comes from an English poem written by John Gay (1685-1732). Gay is best known for his creation of “The Beggar’s Opera” in 1728. The poem refers to a fleet of ships that is about to set sail. William is one of the sailors. Susan is in love with William and is searching for him in order to say goodbye. When she finds him, William tells her not to worry and promises that he will return safely from the voyage.

All in the downs the fleet was moored,
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came aboard;
“Oh where shall I my true love find?
Tell me ye jovial sailors, tell me true
If my sweet William sails among the crew.”

It’s thought that English colonists carried the song from the old world to the new one. They were probably reminded of the poem by the flower’s dark centre (which does look black under some light conditions) surrounded by the contrasting and beautiful yellow or orange petals.

A Beautiful and Enjoyable Sight

Black-eyed Susans are valued landscaping plants near my home. I always look forward to seeing them. The sight often improves my mood, perhaps because of the sunny appearance of the flowers. I enjoy sitting on the grass and watching the activities of the pollinators that visit them as well. Since the open flowers are close together, they often attract multiple insects. The pollinators and the flowers are an interesting and educational sight.

References

  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) information from the Missouri Department of Conservation
  • More facts about the species from North Carolina Extension Gardener
  • Facts about Rudbeckia fulgida from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension
  • Information about both species of black-eyes Susans from South Dakota State University Extension
  • The “Black-Eyed Susan” poem and song from Mainly Norfolk (an English folk song website)

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