Black-Eyed Susans: Remembering the Beauty of Summer

It may seem strange to be writing about glorious black-eyed Susan flowers in the last few days of December. Signs that nature is in the very early stage of awakening have appeared where I live, however. In the southwestern corner of British Columbia, the alder catkins began to emerge before Christmas Day. They are growing longer on a daily basis. I know from experience that willow catkins will appear before too long.

Black-eyed Susan flowers won’t appear until June, but I enjoy looking at photos of the plants and thinking of the beauty to come. The indication that nature is stirring is encouraging.

Susanflower

Black-eyed Susan flowers and a bee; photo by Linda Crampton

Rudbeckia hirta

The scientific name of the black-eyed Susan is Rudbeckia hirta. It belongs to the sunflower family, or the Asteraceae. 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) .

The black-eyed Susan 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 black-eyed Susan plant has a basal rosette of oval 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 flowering stems may be as tall as three feet, though they are generally shorter.

The flower head is actually an inflorescence made of many smaller flowers. The centre of the flower is a dark brown to purple-brown dome bearing the disk florets. The bright yellow “petals” are actually the ray florets. 

Black-eyed Susans and 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 dome. The petals of coneflowers sometimes point downwards, which makes the “cone” more obvious. I often see Echinacea purpurea, or the purple coneflower, planted beside black-eyed Susans.

Rudbeckia fulgida

Rudbeckia fulgida is another plant that grows in the wild in North America and is also cultivated. It’s often known as a black-eyed Susan, like its relative, but it’s also called the orange coneflower. It’s frequently 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.

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.

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.

Black-eyed Susans are popular landscaping plants near my home. I’m looking forward to my first sight of them in the upcoming year. 2019 might well be the year in which I start growing them myself.

References

Growing black-eyed Susan from South Dakota State University Extension

The Black-Eyed Susan poem from the Bartleby website