Native Plants: Black-Eyed Susan
This week I'm excited to spotlight a species that is close to my heart, the black-eyed susan. In the birding world, people use the term "spark bird" to refer to a species they feel a special connection to because it sparked their initial interest in birding. Black-eyed susans are the "spark flower" that opened my eyes to the fascinating world of native plants and wildflowers.
When I moved back to Georgia about a decade ago, I got into the habit of taking daily nature walks. Shortly after that, I started getting back into photography and bringing my camera along to take photos of anything that caught my interest. During one of those early outings, I stumbled across a no-mow area in a local park that was absolutely packed with cheerful yellow flowers. I had no idea what they were, but I wanted to learn more about them.
With a little googling, I learned that the flowers were black-eyed susans, which I had heard of before but knew very little about. I assumed their name was related to the dark "eye" in the center of the flower, and it is, but their name also alludes to a famous ballad by John Gay, who wrote The Beggar's Opera.
A few other facts about the black-eyed susan really spoke to me. They are pioneer plants, which means they are one of the first species to return to a disturbed area after a significant disruption like a fire. I was immediately drawn to this idea because I was in a season of reflection and healing when I first noticed them. And if you've ever seen the damage that follows a wildfire, you know how inspiring it is to see new life rising from the ashes. This is probably why the black-eyed susan is given symbolic meanings like justice, encouragement, and resilience.
By the way, if you didn't know that flowers often have symbolic meanings, I highly recommend looking into it. Most flowers have a fascinating cultural history. In the Victorian era, people even created a "language of flowers" and used it to send secret messages to friends and lovers!
I never studied botany in school, but I did teach Latin, and I love to learn a flower's scientific name. So, what does "rudbeckia hirta" mean? "Rudbeckia" was chosen to honor the botanist Olaf Rudbeck the Younger and his father Olaf Rudbeck the Elder, while "hirta" is simply the Latin word for "hairy." It makes perfect sense when you look at the plant's fuzzy stem!
After my interest was piqued by black-eyed susans, I started a habit of researching any plant I encountered on my nature walks. It wasn't long before that habit blossomed into a bit of an obsession, and eventually I wanted to plant some of my favorite wildflowers in my garden at home.
Just as there are variations and cultivars of coneflower, rudbeckia has several varieties. One of the most popular for gardens is rudbeckia fulgida (from the Latin word for "shining" or "glistening"). I have the cultivar rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm' in my garden, and in addition to staying more compact, it has smaller, flatter seed cones and flowers than rudbeckia hirta.
I also planted gloriosa daisies, which are a type of black-eyed susan with very large flowers and bright splashes of red, orange, or burgundy surrounding their seed cones. The gloriosa daisy is wildly popular with the birds and pollinators, much more so than the Goldsturm. Between the purple coneflowers and the gloriosa daisies, there are goldfinches in my garden all the time.
At the end of their first summer, I noticed that my gloriosa daisies were seeding prolifically. Once their seed cones begin to dry out, the slightest movement can spread their tiny black seeds everywhere! As much as possible, I tried to prevent them from falling into surrounding areas, but they have spread quite a bit in the backyard. Which brings me to what makes me love black-eyed susans the most: they taught me to open my mind to a more wild and natural idea of beauty.
Like many women in Western culture, I grew up with fairly rigid concepts of beauty. And those rigid standards weren't just about what I should look like; I also absorbed a lot of ideas about what a "nice" house, yard, or garden should look like. But the more time I spent in nature, the more I realized how arbitrary and limited those concepts were. Things in nature don't need humans to interfere with them constantly to be beautiful. They just ARE beautiful.
As I invite more wildflowers into my yard, I'm learning that I can't really treat them the way that we usually treat garden flowers. Meaning, you'll probably be disappointed if you plant gloriosa daisies in a flower bed and expect them to stay neat and tidy and exactly where you put them. They're going to get a little wild and crazy! But they are also going to bring you birds and pollinators. And if you truly want to be generous to the creatures who depend on these flowers, you'll learn to accept that there will be certain times of year when your garden looks a little unruly or bedraggled. But, again, there is a wonderful lesson to learn in that too. Things don't have to look perfect and pretty to be functional and worthy of appreciation.
When I took the photo above about six years ago, I remember feeling sad that my beloved black-eyed susan meadow appeared to be dying. I hated watching those vibrant yellow flowers fade. Now, I see that photo and feel happy knowing that the dry seedheads will provide food for birds in the winter and ensure that the black-eyed susans return the next year. In those days I would have worried about having such a messy looking flower bed in my yard, but now I cringe at the thought of cutting back the dry seed heads early and taking away sustenance from the birds I love. Ever since I started learning about native plants, I have a completely different sense of what I want my yard to look like, and more importantly, what I want it to DO for the ecosystem.
Isn't it exciting how much your life can change when you start paying attention and getting curious? I am forever grateful for those first black-eyed susans that caught my eye and sparked a whole new way of looking at the world. They will always have a place in my garden and my heart.