Dear Readers, you might remember how excited I was to see these flowers in East Finchley Cemetery back in July. They were still pretty much flowering at the beginning of October, and therein lies one of the reasons that they’re so popular. These are real prairie plants, with all Rudbeckias coming from North America, and they are often seen combined in garden schemes that incorporate grasses, such as in the photo below, from the US Embassy in London.
As you can see, they are members of the daisy family (Asteraceae), and are commonly known as coneflowers or black-eyed-susans. However confusion abounds: coneflowers can also mean plants from the Echinacea family, and black-eyed-susan in the UK tends to be an annual climbing vine (Thunbergia alata). Thank goodness for binomial scientific names, I hear you cry. Thank heavens for Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy! Well, Rudbeckia has a surprising link with Linnaeus, as you’ll see below.
The Rudbeckia genus as a whole contains about 25 species, with most of the cultivated plants deriving from Rudbeckia hirta.
Rudbeckia was named after Carl Linnaeus’s patron and fellow botanist, Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1660–1740) and to honour Rudbeck’s late father Olof Rudbeck the Elder (1630–1702), who was also a distinguished naturalist. The younger Rudbeck had invited Linnaeus to be a tutor to his children, and had recommended Linnaeus to replace him as lecturer of botany when he retired. Linnaeus wrote the following dedication to his patron:
“So long as the earth shall survive and as each spring shall see it covered with flowers, the Rudbeckia will preserve your glorious name. I have chosen a noble plant in order to recall your merits and the services you have rendered, a tall one to give an idea of your stature, and I wanted it to be one which branched and which flowered and fruited freely, to show that you cultivated not only the sciences but also the humanities. Its rayed flowers will bear witness that you shone among savants like the sun among the stars; its perennial roots will remind us that each year sees you live again through new works. Pride of our gardens, the Rudbeckia will be cultivated throughout Europe and in distant lands where your revered name must long have been known. Accept this plant, not for what it is but for what it will become when it bears your name.”(Quoted from Wilfred Blunt’s ‘The Compleat Naturalist : A Life of Linnaeus’.
If anyone wants to name a plant after me I’d appreciate something just as fulsome, please.
Rudbeckias are great for pollinators, and are said to be rabbit and deer resistant – not a problem in my East Finchley garden, but maybe a plus point for anyone with a rural garden or with a country estate. It’s also said that the seedheads are popular with goldfinches – do let me know if you’ve spotted any munching on your plants. I have left my single teasel plant standing in the garden in the hope of attracting finches, but so far not a sausage. In North America, Rudbeckia is a foodplant for the caterpillars of the Sunflower Patch butterfly (Chlosyne lacinia), the Gorgone Checkerspot (Chlosyne gorgone) and the Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis)
In their book ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley mention that Rudbeckia is one of the North American plants that can often ‘jump over the wall’ and colonise areas of wasteland. Who knows, maybe soon we’ll seen ‘prairies’ appearing over our disused car parks and pieces of wasteland (at least until some developer builds some ‘affordable’ flats on them).
Medicinally, the petals of Rudbeckia have been used by Native Americans to make a tea to treat ‘dropsy, flux, and some private diseases’. I shall leave you to consider which of the many options a ‘private disease’ might be. The leaves were also used as a diuretic, and as a poultice for snake bite.
In other news, apparently the young stems of Rudbeckia can be eaten like celery (though as celery is one of my least-liked vegetables I am struggling to see the attraction). It is also the State Flower of Maryland. and I can’t help wondering if the black and yellow sections of the rather medieval-looking flag refers to the colours of the plant.
And now, for a piece of poetry and folklore combined! I came across a poem, by the English poet John Gay (1685-1732), who is best known for composing The Beggar’s Opera. This poem, which tells the tale of beautiful Black-eyed Susan and her mariner beloved, Sweet William, is supposed to explain the way that Rudbeckia and Sweet William always bloom at the same time. “What Tosh” thinks I, scurrying off to see when Rudbeckia was first cultivated in the UK. Well, the answer is 1640 so it’s quite possible that Gay had noticed the time that the plant flowered, and it inspired him to this boisterous work of love across the waters. See what you think.
Sweet William’s Farewell to Black-eyed Susan
By John Gay (1685–1732)
ALL in the Downs the fleet was moor’d,
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came aboard,
‘Oh! where shall I my true love find!
Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true, 5
If my sweet William sails among the crew.’
William, who high upon the yard
Rock’d with the billow to and fro,
Soon as her well-known voice he heard,
He sigh’d and cast his eyes below: 10
The cord slides swiftly through his glowing hands,
And (quick as lightning) on the deck he stands.
So the sweet lark, high-poised in air,
Shuts close his pinions to his breast
(If, chance, his mate’s shrill call he hear) 15
And drops at once into her nest.
The noblest captain in the British fleet,
Might envy William’s lip those kisses sweet.
‘O Susan, Susan, lovely dear,
My vows shall ever true remain; 20
Let me kiss off that falling tear,
We only part to meet again.
Change, as ye list, ye winds; my heart shall be
The faithful compass that still points to thee.
‘Believe not what the landsmen say, 25
Who tempt with doubts thy constant mind:
They’ll tell thee, sailors, when away,
In every port a mistress find.
Yes, yes, believe them when they tell thee so,
For thou art present wheresoe’er I go. 30
‘If to far India’s coast we sail,
Thy eyes are seen in diamonds bright,
Thy breath is Afric’s spicy gale,
Thy skin is ivory, so white.
Thus every beauteous object that I view, 35
Wakes in my soul some charm of lovely Sue.
‘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. 40
Love turns aside the balls that round me fly,
Lest precious tears should drop from Susan’s eye.’
The boatswain gave the dreadful word,
The sails their swelling bosom spread,
No longer must she stay aboard: 45
They kiss’d, she sigh’d, he hung his head;
Her lessening boat unwilling rows to land:
‘Adieu!’ she cries; and waved her lily hand.