Black-eyed Susans a bright idea for any garden

Black-eyed Susans a bright idea for any garden

Few flowers embrace the face of the summer sun quite as well as black-eyed Susan. Her daisy flowers of golden yellow imbibe on heat as she serves up food for pollinators and joy for gardeners.

The common name, black-eyed Susan, confusingly refers to several species in the genus, Rudbeckia. They include an array of perennials, short-lived perennials, biennials and annuals. Flower sizes range from 2 to 5 inches wide. Rudbeckias are true native plants with over 25 species native or now naturalized throughout North America.

Black-eyed Susan flowers can be single, semi-double and fully double in a range of colors from lemon-yellow to gold, chestnut, mahogany and bronze, as well as multi-colored. Most species are in bloom from midsummer through fall. Plants frequently have coarse, hairy leaves and stems.

The flower center is often more reddish brown than black, and some new cultivars, such as Irish Eyes, have a green eye. The name black-eyed Susan evidently came from an old English poem about a woman and a sailor named sweet William, but that's another story.

The largest group of black-eyed Susan for the garden is Rudbeckia hirta. Often called gloriosa daisy, many cultivars are available in a wide range of sizes. Flowers bloom from July until frost in shades of orange, orange-yellow and yellow. Rudbeckia hirta is a short-lived perennial and is often grown as an annual.

However black-eyed Susan loves to cast her seeds far and wide, therefore she can be a perennial visitor to the garden with her prolific reseeding. Wild seedlings will produce a myriad of flower colors and plant sizes. For some gardeners, her unencumbered spirit may be disconcerting, but I love that she fills in spots where other plants have failed to flourish.

One of my favorites, Indian Summer, is a 1995 All-America Selections (AAS) winner. It produces stunning 5- to 9-inch golden-yellow flowers on 3-foot-tall plants.

Another AAS winner is Cherokee Sunset, with semi-double and double 2- to 4-inch wide flowers in shades of yellow, orange, bronze,and mahogany on 30-inch tall plants.

Prairie Sun produces outstanding 5-inch blooms with golden-yellow petals tipped with a brush of lighter primrose yellow surrounding a striking, light-green center cone on 3-foot tall branching plants. A similar variety with smaller yellow flowers and green centers is Irish Eyes or Green Eyes.

Tiger Eye, with its well-branched compact 24-inch tall plants, is covered in long-lasting single, golden-yellow blooms. Several shorter cultivars are great for growing in containers. Becky produces dwarf 10- to 12-inch plants with large 3-inch flowers in orange, yellow and cinnamon bicolor. Toto is dwarf and compact with smaller flowers covering the 12- to 15-inch tall plants.

Black-eyed Susan is easy to grow for beginning gardeners, and most plant geeks will love the wide range of sizes, colors, shapes and forms. Susan grows best in full sun in average well-drained soil but will tolerate light shade and dry conditions.

Black-eyed Susans look comfortable in prairie-style gardens with native prairie grasses, including switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). In a perennial flower garden, her orange and yellow flowers combine well with the blues and purples of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), liatris (Liatris spicata), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and fall-blooming asters (Aster novi-belgii or Aster novae-angliae).

Summer gardens are incomplete without a social call from black-eyed Susan. Thanks to the National Garden Bureau ( for information.

Upcoming garden walks

Vermilion County Master Gardeners will host their event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 14. Enjoy Oakwood area gardens, edible flower and herbal vinegar programs and garden vendors. Tickets are available at the University of Illinois Extension, Berry's Garden Center, Danville Gardens, Big R, Kennekuk County Park and Sleepy Creek Vineyards. Call 442-8615 or visit for more information.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 21, Champaign County Master Gardener will feature eight gardens and plenty of shopping at the Idea Garden. Call 333-7672 or visit for more information.

Sandra Mason is unit educator, horticulture and environment, for the UI Extension, Champaign County. Contact her with questions or comments at 801 N. Country Fair Drive, Champaign, IL 61821, call 333-7672, email or fax 333-7683.

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