There I was, driving along counting all the European plants growing - and often looking very attractive - along the Pennsylvania roadside when in the distance I noticed a whole field of orange. In this part of the world it could only be one thing: Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). And so it proved, a large field covered from edge to edge in R. hirta, with a scattering of fleabane (Erigeron annuus).
This is in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, a park ripe with alien plants as well as natives and also very rich in bird life. But acres and acres of rudbeckia? It didn’t look natural. The park people had a hand in that, I’m sure, they must have sown seed. But it looks spectacular.
There were also three interesting features about the uniquely colorful field. Firstly, I spent two half hours, on two different sunny days, walking through the field and looking at the plants and I did not see a single insect of any kind feeding on the flowers. Not one.
And secondly, the flowers varied in shape noticeably: some flowers were very starry with narrow ray florets (the petals) and some much more full with broader rays; and many were in between.
Also, I noticed that on all the plants the flowers were bicolored: dark yellow-orange at the base and a paler tone at the tips (left, click to enlarge). That two-tone coloring is a feature of many garden varieties but the Flora of North America – the most authoritative work on North American native plants - is very specific: it says that the rays are “usually uniformly yellow to yellow-orange”. I’ve since checked other plants in the area and they’re all two-tone.
The Flora of North America also says: “or with a basal maroon splotch, sometimes mostly maroon”; I’ve never seen a wild plant with maroon flowers in the wild. But it shows that the rusty coloring of many garden varieties and the development of the first red flowered form 'Cherry Brandy' (below, click to enlarge) are based on an inherent genetic capacity for darker shades.
So, naturally, many people want to grow this colorful plant in their gardens. But, as a friend said to me the other day: “We keep planting them, but they never come back the next year.” The reason is that they’re biennial, and they die after flowering and you either have to sow more seed or hope they self sow. If you want a perennial form, grow Rudbeckia fulgida.