We have two types of black-eyed susan. Rudbeckia hirta is the most common form and has been in the front garden for thirty years. It is also called brown-eyed susan, brown betty, glorious daisy, English bulls-eye, and yellow daisy. Its eye is fairly flat.
Wild American Beauty: The Black-Eyed Susan
Who was Susan anyhow? And exactly what was her relationship with Sweet William?
Ever wonder about one of America's favorite wildflowers? Who was Black-Eyed Susan? Her story is one of the grand romantic tales of the wildflowers. And beyond legend, her name graces several of our most important and popular wildflower species. (By the way, the flower's eye, or center, is not really black; it's dark brown, but that's not important.)
Who was she? Well, no one's sure, but the legend says it all comes from an Old English poem of the post-Elizabethan era entitled simply, "Black-Eyed Susan," written by a very famous poet of the day named John Gay, 1685-1732. (Painting above by Winslow Homer.):
All in the downs, the fleet was moored,
Banners waving in the wind.
When Black-Eyed Susan came aboard,
and eyed the burly men.
"Tell me ye sailors, tell me true
Does my Sweet William sail with you?"
There are several stanzas, explaining that her William was on board, "high upon the yardarm", and quickly scrambled down for a fond farewell with his lady love. It seems he was off to the high seas, but promised ardently to be safe and true:
Though battle call me from thy arms
Let not my pretty Susan mourn;
Though cannons roar, yet safe from harms
William shall to his Dear return.
Love turns aside the balls that round me fly
Lest precious tears should drop from Susan's eye.
This charming poem tells one of the great "Legends of Love" in our wildflowers, and every summer even today, it plays out just as the poem describes. Here's how it works:
Even though it's not a native, if you seed wild Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) with common Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), they'll bloom beautifully for you at exactly the same time. Because both are basically biennials, and her gold plus his bright reds and purples blooming together is a sight to gladden any gardener's heart.
Since Susan is a North American native, this tale tells us English colonists must have given the golden beauty her name when they arrived in the New World. However, since most all the Black-Eyed Susan species are native to the Great Plains, plant experts have wondered for years how our colonists on the east coast could have given this wildflower the name it's had for centuries. But some recent research in Maryland (where "Susan" serves as the State Flower) shows that the plant was growing there during the colonial period. So like today, Black-Eyed Susans were probably across the continent from the beginning. Today, they are common in all 50 states and across Canada.