Eyes that see not

August 08, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

Monday morning, sitting in a chair across from my usual seat at the breakfast table, I've discovered a new aspect of the garden. After writing of the paler colors of the August garden, visible from my office window, I was suddenly confronted with the bright, brassy gold of sunflowers and black-eyed Susans.

I realized that the pessimistic Biblical prophet Jeremiah might have had me in mind when he spoke of foolish people - "which have eyes and see not." My tunnel vision had led me to describe just one aspect of the garden. Later in the day, when I was out running errands, I noticed sunflowers and black-eyed Susans everywhere.

During the last 15 years, the sunflower - native to North and South America - has appeared in a marvelous new wardrobe: colors - gold, rust, maroon and orange plus combinations. There are traditonal tall, impressive beauties that produce a bounty of seeds for birds and smaller sunflowers just 2 feet tall. Some, designed by plant breeders as cut flowers, produce no pollen. The pollen of ordinary sunflowers may drift onto your best tablecloth, leaving nasty stains. It may also cause discomfort to dinner guests who are sensitive to it.


In early times, Native Americans found that the sunflower was a rich source of food. They gathered the seeds in the wild, then roasted and shelled them and ground the hulled seeds into meal. Some tribes used sunflower tea for lung ailments; others used the seeds to treat bronchial infections.

Botanically, the sunflower is Heleianthus annuus, from the Greek helios (the sun) and anthemon (flower) - annuus labels it as an annual.

Today, beyond their cheerful contribution they make to our gardens, we still enjoy the seeds and sunflower seed oil for cooking.

One look at a flourishing sunflower reaching up to the sky makes it easy to understand how the sunflower can be said to represent "pride and haughtiness" as well as "lofty and pure thoughts."

Even though they are native American plants, the sunflowers we most often see - unless they are growing underneath a bird feeder - have been deliberately planted. Sowing the seeds several weeks apart will assure continuous color.

On the other hand, the common black-eyed Susan produces its glorious golden blooms in the wild - in prairies, dry fields, open woods and along road shoulders - throughout much of the United States. An ever-increasing number of easy-care and beautiful cultivars are available. They provide blooms from late July to October (provided they are frequently dead-headed.)

The botanic designation Rudebeckia hirta, comes from the Swedish physician-botanist Olaus Rudbeck (1660-1740.)

Hirta is the Greek word for hairy, which well describes the stems and leaves of this plant.

The black-eyed Susan has been the official state flower of Maryland since 1918. Once a year, it achieves national prominence as an emblem of the Preakness Stakes.

It does take a while to establish a planting of these golden beauties. The first year they produce a low rosette of blooms. The following year the long, stiff, hairy stems rise up to 2 feet in late July and soon the plant is covered with blooms.

The black-eyed Susan is, after the first year, drought tolerant and does well in poor soil. Once established, partial shade or full sun suit it well.

Right now, in our Butterfly Garden, the gray leaves and white flowers of a huge pussy toes lend sparkle to the dark green leaves as they mingle with golden blooms of the black-eyed Susan that is planted behind it.

Had I been more diligent about pulling up the scruffy borage that was well beyond its prime, I would have noticed a struggling 'Viette's Little Suzy' (Rudbeckia speciosa) sooner. 'Little Suzy' is a dwarf version of the black-eyed Susan. The flowers are small and it is esteemed for its excellent fall foliage color.

One of my new favorite members of this tribe is the brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba). This plant, variously described in the catalogs as biennial, triennial and a short-lived perennial, produces a many-branched plant with lance-shaped leaves and small, 2-inch yellow flowers. The stems are slender, brittle and have a lovely maroon tint.

Our plant is now nearly 5 feet tall. I'm hopeful that it will live up to its reputation and re-seed liberally.

There you have it - if you want to brighten your August garden make way for sunflowers and rudbeckia.

Remember, tunnel vision can be the bane of both the gardener and the writer. Don't always stay put in the same place, give yourself a wider view of the garden and the world.

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