Black-eyed Susans Sizzle in Summer
Story by L. Beth Bonifant and Photography by Ed Mann | Reprinted from Summer 2015
The black-eyed Susan is one of America’s favorite wildflowers. Common in all 50 states, Maryland designated this perky little plant as the official state floral emblem in 1918.
Research in Maryland indicates the plant was growing here during the colonial period. Black-eyed Susan (aka Rudbeckia hirta) is certainly among the most cherished state flowers. Open fields, meadows and even the sunny sides of country roads can be seen blanketed with this cheerful, charming beauty. The 2 to 3-inch wide daisy-like flower’s most obvi-ous claim to fame is its bright yellow color with a brown, “cute-as-a-button” center. Hirta, meaning hairy in Latin, denotes the roughly textured leaves. Imagine the generations of American children who have picked these flowers for innocent bouquets presented to mothers and grandmothers. The flower’s yellow petals and black centers echo the yellow and black in our state flag. I never counted (until now and it’s true), but it even sports 13 flower petals – homage to the 13 original colonies, of which Maryland is one. Revealing heritage and history in this symbolic fashion is just another endearing quality of this tough native plant.
There are many varieties of black-eyed-Susan available to gardeners today. R. hirta is an annual or biennial. The Burpee Seed Company introduced an off-spring, R. hirta gloriosa, in the 1950s. Gloriosa Daisy is about three times the size of the wildflower’s bloom, making this big flower a huge favorite. “Gloriosas” are festive mixtures of pure yellow, many with dark mahogany-red splotches at the base of the petals.
This creates an eye-catching pinwheel or carnival effect. Unfortunately, while the blooms are spectacular, the plant is short-lived. Enter Rudbeckia fulgida, by far the most popular of these cone-flowers. For a long visual show with a minimum of intervention, these are the perfect perennials for Southern Maryland summers. Look for the variety of the species known as Rudbeckia “Gold-sturm.” That’s German for “gold storm.” No mellow yellow, this little miss Suzy is the color of ‘caution,’ inducing passersby to slow down and take a look.
Black-eyed Susans can bloom from June to October. Like many perennials, you can cut them back after they flower and a second, smaller bloom may occur in fall. Black-eyed Susan works well planted in mixed borders; she creates a particularly pleasing palette when planted with Russian sage, asters, fountain grass and her first cousin, the purple coneflower (Echinacea). Bees, butterflies and birds will enjoy the pollen, nectar and seeds in a garden such as this, and all that activity adds to the show.
Throw in some Sweet William and a pack of zinnia seeds and you will have created your own stunning, interactive masterpiece! Once established, most of these plants will become self-sufficient and have a high rate of return each year.
Like pools of sunshine, I prefer to plant my black-eyed Susan solo. Several clumps of this plant will form large colonies in just a few years and I like to let it happen. Massive mulch beds on each side of my entrance contain sweetbay magnolia trees in the back, inkberry shrubs in the middle and sweeps of black-eyed Susan across the front …and anywhere else it wants! Plants can be divided in spring and fall to expedite the progress, but why not relax and enjoy this natural process?
Plant the golden girls in full sun, no SPF required. Drought tolerant once established, you will need to provide moisture to help get them going. At 2 to 3 feet tall, staking is never a necessity and wind won’t topple their stiff, upright stems. Planted en masse, mixed with other flower friends in a garden, or spilling out of urns and containers, black-eyed Susan can’t help but show off. It’s not her fault; after all, a girl can’t be a “shy violet” when she’s school-bus yellow.
THE FLOWER OF THE PREAKNESS
The Preakness Stakes is an annual event held the third Sunday in May each year at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md. It is the second leg of the “Triple Crown” of horse racing. At the Kentucky Derby the winning horse is draped with a blanket of roses, but at the Preakness the victor is covered with black-eyed Susans. This Maryland-style celebration was adapted in the late 1930s when it was decided that the state flower should replace the roses used in the past. When this change occurred, the florist at that time “faked it” by painting the center of yellow daisies with black shoe polish. Today, the “Viking Pom” chrysanthe-mum has become the stand-in since black-eyed Susan’s still don’t cooperate by blooming in time. But shhhh … let’s not tell anyone.
BLACK-EYED SUSAN COCKTAIL
You don’t have to reserve this cocktail for the Preakness; why not host a Black-eyed Susan Day party this summer when the flowers are in bloom?
1 ½ oz. vodka
½ oz. light rum
2 oz. pineapple juice
¼ oz. fresh lime juice
¾ oz. orange juice
Mix ingredients. Garnish with a fresh orange slice and a cherry. Makes 1 drink.