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Gardening 101: Black-Eyed Susans

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Gardening 101: Black-Eyed Susans

September 10, 2020

Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia: “Prairie Daisy”

Black-eyed Susans are native prairie flowers. If you grew up in Illinois, and your kindergarten teacher said to draw a flower, it is likely that you reached first for a yellow crayon (for the daisy petals) and next for the black (to color in a round center. I drew a whole meadow the year I was five.

I was much older before I realized that there is more than one variety of black-eyed Susan and that some are perennials, others annuals or biennials (all of them belonging to the same plant family as sunflowers). Rudbeckias are at home on the flat, sweeping stretches of land that define so much of our open terrain and may be the first wildflower you think of even now, decades after being promoted to first grade (the year of coloring in the stars and stripes on pictures of an American flag).

Are golden black-eyed Susans the right plant for your garden? They’re certainly cheery, with their strong jolt of long-lasting yellow (or orange) flowers. Read on for tips to grow them and to make them get along with other colors in your garden’s palette.

 On some black-eyed Susan varieties, color seems to bleed from the center onto the petals. Two cultivars with brown or black color at the base of the petals are &#8\2\16;Denver Daisy&#8\2\17; and &#8\2\16;Gold Bullion&#8\2\17;. Photograph by John Perry via Flickr.
Above: [UPDATE: Tickseed can be similar in appearance; a reader (thank you, Amy) wrote to say the flower in the photo above is Coreopsis tinctoria rather than a Rudbeckia.] On some black-eyed Susan varieties, color seems to bleed from the center onto the petals. Two cultivars with brown or black color at the base of the petals are ‘Denver Daisy’ and ‘Gold Bullion’. Photograph by John Perry via Flickr.
How can you tell if a black-eyed Susan is going to be a perennial or an annual flower? First, read the label on the seed packet or the nursery pot. If that’s no help, a general rule of thumb is this: Most black-eyed Susans are varieties of either Rudbeckia hirta or Rudbeckia fulgida, with R. fulgida more likely to be a long-lived perennial plant.

Black-eyed Susans bloom against an airy backdrop of Stipa giganta at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, England. Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr.
Above: Black-eyed Susans bloom against an airy backdrop of Stipa giganta at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, England. Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr.

How do you make so much bright yellow work in a border? Undercut it with the tawny colors of perennial grasses, which can create a neutral backdrop to frame the flowers.

Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr.

Another tack to take is to give in to all that yellow optimism and plant a meadow or a prairie garden to make your black-eyed Susans look at home. The benefits are many: Black-eyed Susans have long-lasting blooms, will add color to a late summer landscape after many other flowers have faded, and are hardy, adaptable plants. After all, to flourish on a prairie, you need to be able to withstand wind, beating sun, dry spells, hail, drenching rainstorms, and even the occasional tornado.

Black-eyed Susans blooming on Narragansett Bay. Photograph by Dr. Mary Gillham Archive via Flickr.
Above: Black-eyed Susans blooming on Narragansett Bay. Photograph by Dr. Mary Gillham Archive via Flickr.

There are black-eyed Susans and there are brown-eyed Susans (equally lovely) and one of our favorite brown-eyed varieties is Rudbeckia triloba (a short-lived perennial in USDA growing zones 4 to 7 and an annual elsewhere).

Cheat Sheet

  • Black-eyed Susans will add a strong dose of golden color to a garden; a good foil for their cheery flowers is a backdrop of tawny perennials grasses.
  • Purple flowers also complement black-eyed Susans well; interplant them with Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) or purple asters.
  • For a perennial black-eyed Susan that will return next year in the same spot where you planted it, consider R. fulgida ‘Goldstrum’ if you live in USDA growing zones 4 to 9. (In zones 4 to 7, a short-lived perennial brown-eyed Susan is Rudbeckia triloba.)
Yellow and purple: a happy combination. Here black-eyed Susans mingle with Verbena bonariensis against a backdrop of Stipa. Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr.
Above: Yellow and purple: a happy combination. Here black-eyed Susans mingle with Verbena bonariensis against a backdrop of Stipa. Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • If you don’t cut down the seed heads, annual black-eyed Susans will reseed themselves and pop up in delightfully unexpected spots next year.
  • Depending on the variety, perennial black-eyed Susans will thrive in USDA growing zones 3 to 9 (with most cultivars happiest in zones 4 to 7).
  • In full sun or partial shade, with a moderate amount of rainfall or irrigation, black-eyed Susans will bloom from midsummer into September.
Photograph by Miss Skittlekitty via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Miss Skittlekitty via Flickr.

For more growing tips, see Black-Eyed Susans: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Annuals and Perennials.

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