It’s been 20 years, 1997 to be exact, since the Georgia Gold Medal program gave its prestigious award away to one of the most persevering native perennials of all time, the Rudbeckia triloba.
At the time, finding one at the local garden center was quite rare even though it is native in 34 states. If you think about it, it is also really quite remarkable that a plant with no dazzling name other than the three lobed Rudbeckia or brown-eyed Susan would grab its place not only in fame, but also in the marketplace.
Rudbeckias were rocking in popularity back then with Indian Summer, a Rudbeckia hirta winning the All-America Selections Award in 1995, and Goldsturm, a Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii, winning the Perennial Plant of the Year in 1999. Today we are still buying them, all of them, including the native brown-eyed Susan, the 1997 Georgia Gold Medal Winner.
Every year as I would take my family to Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, this rudbeckia’s reflections could be seen across lakes in bold sweeps with Joe Pye weed and the swamp hibiscus. In Callaway’s wildflower garden, it was the same, absolute dazzling color with a swarm of pollinators.
At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, ours, too, are showing out shoulder-high in most locations. They are partnered with salvias, old fashion summer phlox and the native spotted monarda all in a cloud of pollinators I struggle to identify other than the butterflies. Of course this is when I always turn to my friend and expert Fitz Clarke at The Landings. He is as good as it gets in bug identification and a nature photographer of which few can compete.
Geographically speaking, the Rudbeckia triloba is native to most of the country. It can be grown in many different soils and is cold hardy from zones 4-9 or from Texas to Minnesota and most states east. It is for this reason why some of us consider this as America’s plant.
The dark-brown-center coned flowers have petals of yellow-orange and produced in abundance from late summer into fall. Some references suggest that the plant is biennial or a short-lived perennial; others say perennial that reseeds, too. One thing is for sure, if you plant the Rudbeckia triloba, you will have it around one way or the other for a long time.
If you are plagued by tight compacted clay that doesn’t drain well, amend with 4 inches of compost or organic matter and till in 6 to 8 inches. While tilling, take advantage of the opportunity and incorporate 2 pounds of a slow-release balanced 8-8-8 or 12-6-6 per 100 square feet of planting area.
Choose a location that gets plenty of sun for best blooming. You’ll want to space your plants 24 to 36 inches apart planting at the same depth they are growing in the container. You certainly can plant by seed and they will bloom the first year. Fall is also a great time to plant giving you a jump start come spring.
If you have dreamed of a wildflower garden, let this be your starter plant. Plant an odd numbered cluster of three or more with blue salvias, anise hyssops or agastache, Joe Pye weeds, native iron weeds, spotted beebalm, and purple coneflowers. You’ll soon be walking a path of rare beauty partnered with the sounds of pollinators moving all around.
Norman Winter is the director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. Follow him on Twitter @CGBGgardenguru.