Bartlett on Gardening: What Color Are Susan’s Eyes?

Rudbeckia is a family of flowers native to the eastern United States. Some of the cousins have been domesticated for use in the garden. One of these ornamentals, Goldsturm, was the Perennial Plant Association’s plant of the year in 1999.

This vigorous plant is popularly known as “Brown-Eyed Susan”. R. fulgida and R. subtomentosa are both called “Black-Eyed Susan." Go figure! To my eyes, they are all golden daisies with dark brown centers.

The Rudbeckia clan begin blooming in late summer and continue on until frost, making them a great choice for late color in the garden.

The one we see blooming by the roadside is most likely R. speciosa which grows wild from New Jersey to Georgia and Alabama. There are some spectacularly tall ones as well. R. nitida is about five feet tall and does have some cultivars in the garden trade. They have names like Autumn Sun and Autumn Glory.

Wild Rudbeckia festoons a dirt road at the center of the universe.

​​R. laciniata is a native which reaches five to 10 feet depending on the amount of sun it receives. I got a division three years ago and found that it takes a while to become established. The first two seasons it slept and crept, requiring a good bit of tending. This year it took off and is taller than I am.

These perennials reproduce by rhizomes, forming dense clumps which may be divided every four years. They are tolerant of clay soil but not soggy conditions. Butterflies and pollinators like them. In addition, they are deer resistant. I guess it would be tough to thrive in our forests and be a feast for Bambi and his friends.

There is another branch of the family which is biennial, meaning they produce foliage the first season and flowers the following year. The flowers fade and go to seed and the plant dies. The seeds sprout in a random ​​way creating a meandering array in the border. These work perfectly in cottage-style gardens.

R. hirta (right) are known as “gloriosa daisies.” They come in a much broader selection of flower forms and colors than the perennial members of the clan. Cherokee Sunset is an All America Selection featuring many shades of yellow, orange, red, bronze and mahogany. The gardener may be happier growing this one from seed both to save money and to enjoy a broader color spectrum.

So, what color are Susan’s eyes? Most are brown, but some, like Prairie Sun, are green. The perennial cousins are foolproof flowers for fall color and look great with both asters and mums.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant keep her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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