The high heat and sporadic rain in recent weeks has left much of the garden looking dispirited, but the black-eyed Susans, just coming into flower, validate the phrase “fresh as a daisy.”
Almost too common, these flowers are often underrated. I think of them as the robin of the perennial garden, a species so abundant and familiar that we rarely stop to think about how handsome they are. Easy to grow and ideal for beginners, black eyes produce a cloud of golden flowers for nearly three months, making them a worthy fixture in any garden – especially during the dog days of summer.
Officially known as Rudbeckia fulgida, the common black-eyed Susan is a native plant found coast-to-coast, thriving in sunny meadows and roadsides. Here’s a wildflower than hasn’t lost its simple charm – it’s a blossom such as a child might draw, a ring of bright petals surrounding that deep, dark “eye.” Since anyone can see the central cone is dark brown, not black, you have to wonder how its enduring name came to be.
Several sources pin it on a song written around 1720 by John Gay a composer better known for “The Beggar’s Opera.” In this ballad, the sad-eyed Susan is a young woman searching a British warship for her beloved “sweet William” as the ship is about to sail. “Black-eyed Susan came on board” seeking reassurance that William’s love was steadfast. He tells her:
“Oh, Susan, Susan, lovely dear!
My vows shall ever true remain,
Let me kiss that falling tear,
We only part to meet again.”
Well, good for William. Hopefully he’s not really headed off to a wandering lifestyle as a sailor with a girl in every port.
It was around this time that native plants from the New World were being exported to Europe, where in many cases they were received with resounding praise. Like the proverbial prophets without honor in their own country, several American perennials – rudbeckia, goldenrod and asters to name three – had to make the transit from here to Europe and back again before they were valued as garden specimens.
The most popular named variety of this plant is known as ‘Goldsturm,’ meaning “gold storm,” a particularly prolific plant discovered by one Heinrich Hageman at a nursery in the Czech Republic in 1937. Heinrich recognized a good thing when he saw it – neat of habit and strong of stem, ‘Goldsturm’ was released to the trade in 1949 and has been a favorite ever since.
I started out in my black-eyed Susan career with three plants of ‘Goldsturm’ that I bought from Burpees. They were, indeed, spectacular plants absolutely covered in blossoms so dense the foliage was all but invisible. I’m not so sure that the plants I have today (numbering in the many dozens) are actually ‘Goldsturm’ still.
They may well be seedlings, many generations removed from the originals, that have reverted to the wild type. I have black-eyed Susans popping up in unlikely places where I have not planted them. Once germinated and underway, these plants grow rapidly and will in fact take over if you let them. This makes them ideal pass-along plants, since you always seem to have plenty to share.
Due to their semi-aggressive ways, I have pretty much evicted the black eyes from my garden proper. Since they go unmolested by deer and other critters, I grow them unprotected in my front yard. They form a bank of vibrant color along my front walk, where I can happily let them go wild, if you will, thickening into a lovely golden wave.
I would have said until recent seasons that black eyes were rarely troubled by insect or disease as well. But over the past few years, many of mine have been blighted by a leaf mange that blackens the foliage as if it were burned by fire. This most likely culprit is a fungus disease, Septoria rudbeckiae specific to this plant.
Leaf moisture is implicated, so once again, overhead watering is considered a contributing factor. Every time I read this, I wonder what the heck rain is if not “overhead watering.” Since they are fairly drought-resistant, I rarely water my Susans in any fashion whatsoever. The fungus persists in the soil, so cleaning up dead foliage at the end of the season is a good hedge against having a wretched excess of spores.
I just don’t worry about this disease too much since it probably won’t prove fatal. If they really become unsightly, I cut them back. Good air circulation helps fend off attacks, so periodically thinning the black-eye beds to give some away is actually in the nature of self-interested generosity.
I still turn the inaccurate common name around in my head like a dog worrying a bone. Other of the plant’s “common” names include Brown-eyed Susan, Brown Betty and Brown daisy – none of them in common usage. But sometimes you can’t fight tradition. Black-eyed they aren’t but shall ever be. Such are the whimsical ways of the world.