Sunday, July 15, 2012

Black-eyed Susan ~ Elizabeth Smith

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Summertime yellows, I see them everywhere here in Florida!  Fragments of yellow blossoms flash against the green landscape like tiny bits of sunlight.  Tickseed, beach sunflower, cassia, and black-eyed Susans are all blooming now. 

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) differs from many of our yellow composite wildflowers by the shape of the fertile array of disk flowers (the brown center); it has a distinctive cone shape that is similar to Echinacea or purple coneflower.  In fact, another common name for black-eyed Susan is yellow coneflower.

Wikipedia reports that the roots have been used like those of Echinacea.  Black-eyed Susan contains anthocyanin, an antioxidant found in many purple, blue, and red fruits such as blueberries, raspberries, and cranberries, as well as the stems, leaves, and flower petals of some plants.  Historically, different parts of the wildflower were used by Native Americans for various ailments.  The Cherokee used the roots for snakebite, worms, and earaches.1   Seminoles used the coneflowers for headaches and fevers. 2

Black-eyed Susan grows as a wildflower throughout most of the United States, but is also a popular cultivated garden flower.  It’s a biennial plant, with a two year life span, but sometimes grows as a short-lived perennial.  Forming a basal rosette of leaves the first year, plants send up stems and bloom the second year.  In Florida, I usually see them growing along the edges of grassy areas near pine flatwoods.  Black-eyed Susan blooms attract bees, butterflies, and other insects forging for nectar and pollen, and birds for the ripe seedheads. 

The leaves and stems are scabrous, an interesting-sounding word that always bring to my mind the term “frabjous” from The Jabberwocky.  Scabrous actually has a more ordinary meaning: rough, or having a rough surface, an apt description of the coarse bristly hairs covering those parts.  The species name refers to these hairs as well; hirtus is from the Latin for “hairy.”  The genus name of Rudbeckia was bestowed by Linnaeus to honor Olaus Rudbeck, one of his botany professors.

Reading and researching black-eyed Susan online brought up some other fascinating tidbits.  Sending a black-eyed Susan bouquet to a loved one in Victorian times meant “encouragement.”  I also came across a charming andromantic legend about black-eyed Susan and sweet William, memorialized in a poem by English author John Gay.  I grew up knowing sweet William as a type of wild phlox, with five petals and light blue-to-lavender in color.  It’s more probable that the name sweet William actually refers to a type of Dianthus, which is native to Europe.

I drew this as part of The Sketchbook Project in the small sketchbook provided.  If you’re not familiar with the project, you can read about it here.  So far, my booklet seems to be turning into a collection of flowers found in Florida – but we’ll wait to see what else might appear on its pages!  So far, I think this one has to be my favorite; after sketching and reading about this common wildflower, I have a deepened appreciation for its uncommon beauty and history.

**Note: ethnobotany information is intended for educational purposes only, please consult reliable  sources before attempting to duplicate any medical uses!**

The Sketchbook Project sketchbook,
Pitt Artist pen in black, size XS for the sketch, and S for the text
Kimberly watercolor pencils, Derwent Inktense,
Niji Aquabrush, small size.

For further reading:
US Department of Agriculture, with range map
Floridata, descriptions and growing information

~ Elizabeth Smith, Naples, Florida, USA


  1. Thanks for all the good info. Elizabeth. Your drawings are wonderful!

  2. Thank you Paula! I appreciate your kind words. ;)


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