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Rudbeckia Update

September 23, 2009

Rudbeckia hirta, probably 'Prairie Sun' (Photo credit: Jean Potuchek) In a recent post (Try this Rudbeckia!), I encouraged gardeners who like rudbeckia to think beyond the ubiquitous black-eyed susans and try the cultivar ‘Herbstsonne.’ I also noted, however, that Herbstsonne is a big plant and might not be suitable for every garden. Now I have happy news for those who, like me, love the yellow and green colors of Herbstsonne, but who don’t have the space for a plant this large.

During my recent visit to the Butchart Gardens in British Columbia (see Gardens Worth Visiting), I discovered a variety of rudbeckia previously unknown to me – one with the coloring of Herbstsonne, but with the size and habits of black-eyed susans. Butchart Gardens staffer Thea Hegland, who promptly and graciously replied to my email inquiry about this plant, tells me that they actually have two rudbeckia cultivars that answer this description, ‘Prairie Sun’ and ‘Irish Spring.’ Both of these seem to be varieties of the species Rudbeckia hirta.

There’s disagreement about whether R. hirta is an annual or a perennial. Allan Armitage, in the 2nd edition of Herbaceous Perennial Plants classifies it as an annual, but the folks at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening classify it as a short-lived perennial, hardy in zones 3-8. I think the boundary between perennial and annual is blurry here for several reasons. First, this is not the kind of plant that will live for decades once established; it is short-lived. Second, most reproduction of this plant seems to be from seed (like an annual) rather than by vegetative divisions. Third, you can plant seeds of Rudbeckia hirta varieties in spring and have flowers by summer. So, if you can’t find nursery plants, you can grow this from seed.

I think these plants are gorgeous. My only caution would be that, like their black-eyed susan cousins, these flowers will self-sow and “naturalize” readily if the conditions are right. This means that they can become invasive and won’t necessarily be good citizens in the flower border. You can get more information about both Prairie Sun and Irish Spring from the Kemper Center for Home Gardening.

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