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growing rudbeckia from seed

Million Dollar Babies: Raising Rudbeckia From Seed

Rude Becky? Black-eyed Susan? What's next...a plant named for ex-ice skater, former female boxer, and infamous 1990s icon Tonya Harding?

Ok, so we came up with "Rude Becky" ourselves, but with Rudbeckia being the genus name for these in-your-face, punch-packing members of the daisy (Asteraceae) family, you can't blame us. (And if you do, you can send hate mail here.)

Rudbeckia plants are generally referred to as the "coneflower" group, from which the Echinacea genus split off. They bloom in various shades and combinations of red, gold and yellow, with a few variants on its flower shape. Some, including black-eyed Susans, have the coneflower's classic "shuttlecock" profile: Prominent, upward-facing dark centers with long, narrow, drooping petals. Others are gently concave, while some coyly curl downward at the tips. But all share the same general pattern as their daisy cousins.

And...they're knockouts.

Native range, history, and medicinal uses

Norway has Cecilia Braekhus. The Netherlands have Lucia Rijker. But rural Canada and the U.S. is the home turf of the Rudbeckia genus, as you can probably guess from such names like "Cherry Brandy" and "black-eyed Susan". Not every domestic-bred boxer can have Laila Ali's pedigree after all, and it's not a lady's fault if her parents gave her a stripper name.

There are more than two dozen Rudbeckia species and variants, each specializing within its native North American biome. They're referred to as "pioneer plants," establishing themselves in areas previously disturbed by fire, logging, tornadoes, or mechanical excavation.

Some species share the Echinacea genus' healing capabilities. Native American cultures used it for a variety of medicinal applications. Brandeis University reports that washes and tinctures made from the roots traditionally treated sores, snakebite, swelling, and earaches, and that black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) root teas expelled worms and eased cold symptoms. R. hirta is still used today to boost immune systems, though Echinacea purpurea is better known for that purpose.

Ohio Northern University backs up this historical data, adding that the Rudbeckia genus is named for Olof Rudbeck the Elder (1630-1702) a mentor of botany heavyweight Carl Linnaeus. Rudbeck notably promoted the theory that Sweden is the fabled Lost City of Atlantis, and also the birthplace of civilization. (Anybody who's been to an IKEA on Black Friday might beg to differ.)

Rudbeckia in the garden

Rudbeckia species are classified as short-lived herbaceous perennials in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 9, though they're often grown as annuals. These bad girls are profuse bloomers—if your garden were a boxing ring, Rudbeckias would last all 12 rounds of summer and return the following year to defend their titles.

They require little or no maintenance except minimal watering and the occasional deadheading, and they're ideal for native wildflower landscape themes. They're drought tolerant, but peak summer heat will require more frequent irrigation. Rudbeckia plants also handle consistently-moist beds as long as they're provided ample air circulation to stave off fungus and rot.

Rudbeckia, like all members of the Asteraceae family have symmetrical compound flowers. The bloom "centers" are actually disc florets, and what we recognize as petals are ray florets. While growth habits may vary, they usually adopt an upright form on long, sparsely-leaved, somewhat rough stems, typically above much larger mounded basal foliage. The dark green leaves resemble those of sunflowers, with a broad, arrowhead shape, growing to six inches in length with a slightly rumpled matte "finish" and fine, gritty texture.

Most Rudbeckias are medium-sized plants, growing to a height of about 36 inches with a spread roughly 12 to 24 inches in diameter.

Here are some quick stats:

  • Sunlight Preferences: Full sun.
  • Soil Preferences: Well-drained soil with a wide quality tolerance.
  • pH: 6.0 to 7.0; err on the acidic side.
  • Bloom Period: June through September; post-bloom seed cones are an attractive encore.

While Rudbeckia grows quickly, first-year plants might not bloom until mid-summer. Some wait until early in their second spring, so don't throw in the towel! They're definitely worth waiting for.

Where (and with what) to grow them

Each Rudbeckia species has its own shape and size, but they're generally more compact than their Echinacea and daisy cousins. Given their bold yellow, orange, and maroon colors and contrasting black colors, white daisy varieties make good garden buddies.

Bright yellow black-eyed Susans fit in with nearly any color scheme. We like growing R. gloriosa and R. hirta v. "Cherry Brandy" with their similar cousin, blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) to draw attention to each species' unique bloom shape and color pattern, and all the Rudbeckias look spectacular among the varied sunflower species. We have a ton in our catalog, with all sorts of exotic shades, sizes, and textures. You might also want to pick up a packet of our Crazy Daisy mixture, which includes our favorite Rudbeckia species.

For contrasting hues among similar silhouettes, consider planting Rudbeckia in front of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)...but don't be afraid to mix things up: Lobelia, aster, cornflower, angelica, bishop's flower, and columbine are just a few plants we offer that match up well to create a wildflower-themed garden.

Because of their tolerance for neglect and their mid-range height, Rudbeckia is an excellent choice as a ramp-up to taller background plants. Their 2 to 4-inch flowers are easy to enjoy from a distance, but that doesn't mean you won't want to plant them up close as tall borders or edgings. Plant them among short-season annuals so they can hide fading blooms and foliage, or in front of sparse-stemmed plants such as roses and mammoth sunflowers to provide both a screen and a transition zone.

Maintenance, pests, and diseases

Mildew, snails, slugs, aphids, rabbits, and deer might put your Rudbeckia plants against the ropes, but they'll rebound quickly if they're provided the sunlight and water they need to stay healthy. Most organic, family-safe herbicide and pesticide products will counter any issues you might have with plant pests and diseases.

Deadheading will help prolong the bloom period and tidy up your Rudbeckia plants' appearance as the season winds down. Right before the first frost, cut down your plants to about 4"  above the soil level to clean up your garden before winter. Hard frosts turn the foliage to an unattractive mush.

Adding some compost or an all-purpose fertilizer in fall or early spring will give your plants a head start for their second season. Many Rudbeckias kiss the canvas in their second or third winter, so plan on re-planting some each year or letting them reseed themselves.

Harvesting for floral design

Black-eyed Susan and her girl gang are fantastic cut flowers. Don't forget to include the leaves in your arrangements. As with all plants harvested for floral design, select flowers as they begin to open, and immerse the stems in tepid water as soon as you cut them. Once you get inside, cut them again under warm, running water prior to adding them to your arrangements. They should last 6 to 8 days indoors if they're kept out of direct sunlight.

To save the cones, pluck off the petals and hang the stems upside-down in a well-ventilated arid room. Save the seeds for next season, display the stems and cones in dry arrangements, or hang them outside for songbirds to pilfer. Note, the seeds are toxic to humans and other mammals, so take care not to sprinkle them in your breakfast cereal.

Growing Rudbeckia from seed

As with all Asteraceae species, growing Rudbeckia from seed is easy, and they reseed themselves if you leave their "cones" to mature at the end of the season. If you're starting a new patch, plant them in fall or, for spring plantings, treat them to a period of cold stratification for 30 to 90 days prior to sowing.

Start your Rudbeckia seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks prior to your last spring frost, or outside when the temperatures are reliably above 65°F. Rake them into loose soil, taking care not to plant them deeper than 1/4". Keep the seedling mix consistently moist with a gentle hose setting or hand mister, and for indoor starts, transition to bottom-watering as the seedlings emerge and begin to grow a set of true leaves.

Sow, transplant, or thin your Rudbeckia seeds 12" to 24" apart. They typically germinate in 7 to 30 days at 70°F. Cold-stratified seeds sprout on the shorter end of the range.

We recommend growing Rudbeckia from seed in individual peat pots or CowPots so as not to disrupt their roots upon transplanting. Score and soak your biodegradable pots before placing them in a hole twice the diameter of the container. Gently backfill and wet the surrounding area, and keep the planting site consistently moist until your Rudbeckia plants begin to "take off."

Seed Needs is in your corner

None of us on the Seed Needs staff is Don King, though we do have some plants that might rival his hairstyle. We're also able to match you up with ornamental, vegetable, and herb seeds to suit your gardening plan and inspire you to hone your skills. With the right seeds from Seed Needs, your garden will be a contender this season.

Rudbeckia plants are among our many varieties with a strong, wild, North American heritage, preserved by gardeners just like you who value heirloom genetics. We also carry heirloom vegetables, meaning they've been bred and naturally-hybridized for color and flavor, rather than for shelf life, shippability, and uniformity. No GMOs here! (Or anabolic steroids, for that matter.) Contact us if you have any questions about our products or more recommendations for plants compatible with Rudbeckias.

Just don't ask us anything about boxing; we pretty much had to look up all these terms to make this blog post work.

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