Maybe you'd expect the quintessential American flower to be red, white, or blue. But with 25 species of black-eyed Susan (Latin name: Rudbeckia) happily ensconced in North America since way before the Mayflower's arrival, it's safe to say that the flower with the yellow petals and black (really brown) center is a true all-American. Native Americans even used various concoctions of the roots to treat colds, earaches, and snakebites.
Black-eyed Susan is super easy to grow, adaptable, and hardy almost everywhere. One species or another will grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 to 9. The National Garden Bureau named it Flower of the Year in 2008.
In a meadow or prairie planting, of course, or a native plant garden. It's a must-have for a wildlife or pollinator garden. Bees, butterflies, and other insects visit the flowers for the pollen and nectar. Finches and chickadees will eat the seeds. Deer, however, don't particularly care for the plant, though if other food is scarce, all bets are off. It's also resistant to the juglone in black walnut trees.
Grow it anywhere a natural, unstudied look is desired. Planted in drifts of five, seven, or nine, the plant is a traffic stopper. And black-eyed Susan flowers so prolifically that there's always enough for bouquets.
How to Grow
Light: Give black-eyed Susan full sun to light shade. Light shade promotes smaller and fewer flowers.
Soil: Prefers moist soil, but can handle periods of drought. The soil needs to be well-drained. Good for sandy soil.
Fertilizer: Top the bed with a 1" layer of compost in spring or after planting. Black-eyed Susan doesn't need a lot of fertilizer. Overfertilizing promotes weak growth and floppy flowers.
Spacing: 2 to 3 feet.
Care over season/overwinter: Leave the seedheads up through the winter for the birds. Don't cut them back in fall unless the plants are diseased and you care about their appearance; then cut back to the ground, and remove all plant debris. Throw it away, don't compost. Most plants self-seed readily.
Companion plants: Coneflower (Echinacea), blazing star (Liatris), Russian sage (Perovskia), asters, and bee balm, plus other native plants and grasses. Those golden petals complement most blue or purple flowers.
The simple, humble black-eyed Susan does contain one mystery. How did it get its common name? Who is Susan? Folklore says the answer is found in a popular English poem written in the early 18th century by John Gay. Black-eyed Susan goes looking for her sailor lover, sweet William. The poem was so popular it was turned into song, which spread its fame even further.
All in the Downs the fleet was moor'd,
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came aboard;
á'O! Where shall I my true love find?
Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true
If my sweet William sails among the crew.'
In Great Britain and Europe by this time, black-eyed Susan the flower had long been considered a valuable garden plant.
After the Kentucky Derby, the second race in the Triple Crown is Maryland's Preakness. The winning horse and rider are draped in a blanket of the state flower – you guessed it – the black-eyed Susan. Though "run for the Rudbeckia" doesn't have the same ring as "run for the roses," there's no arguing that black-eyed Susan is a winner.
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