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Black-Eyed Susan: How to Tell a Biennial vs Perennial (Short-Lived vs Long-Lived Plant)

by | Updated: Jun 9, 2021

Black-Eyed Susan, aka Rudbeckia, is an easy-to-grow flower for late summer in Colorado and Utah

Black-Eyed Susan (officially, Rudbeckia — Rude-bek-ee-uh) is an easy-to-grow flower that can add big color to your western garden, particularly in the late summer.

But often, rookie gardeners plant Black-Eyed Susan…
and it doesn’t come back

If this happens to you, you may find yourself thinking:

“Well, that article was a load of crap.”  🙂

Or worse, you may think:

“I guess I just don’t have a green thumb.”

I’m here to tell you this isn’t the case!

But there are helpful things to know about Black-Eyed Susan that don’t always get mentioned when you see this plant on the “Best Flowers for Colorado & Utah” lists.

So, in this article, you’re going to learn…

How to tell the difference between the short-lived vs long-lived Black-Eyed Susan (the biennials vs perennials)

I’m going to use a little garden lingo later in the article (bring on the Latin!), but I promise I’ll explain what it means.

Close-up photo of Black-Eyed Susan, a yellow or gold flower that looks like a daisy with a brown, black or green center

Some types of Black-Eyed Susan are much shorter-lived than others.

So, what are some ways to know what you’re buying?

  1. Take a good look at the plant
  2. Look at the botanical name on your plant tag (the Latin jibber-jobber I’ll explain in a sec)

The plants below are Black Eyed Susan.

What do you notice?

Fuzzy leaves on the Black-Eyed Susan biennial vs smooth leaves on the Black-Eyed Susan perennial

Biennials vs perennials: Comparing the fuzzy stem on Rudbeckia hirta vs smooth stem on Rudbeckia fulgida

In the Plant A photos, do you notice the hairy leaves and stems?

When you touch them, they feel fuzzy.

If your Black-Eyed Susan is fuzzy, you likely have a shorter-lived plant

Fuzzy Black-Eyed Susan plants are known as Rubeckia hirta, and they tend to be shorter-lived.

If you’re new to plant names: Rudbeckia describes a group of plants with similar traits. Hirta is like a descriptive adjective. It loosely translates to “hairy” or “rough” in Latin.

So, to keep things basic, plants with the botanical name, Rudbeckia hirta, include different types of hairy Black-Eyed Susan.

We’ll chat about WHY plants are hairy at another time.

(Does this make your list of topics you NEVER thought you’d talk about today? “Hey, why are plants hairy?”)

But for this post, don’t let the hair distract you. The hair itself is not why the plant is shorter-lived.

It just happens to be a clue you can use to assume you have a shorter-lived plant.

It also helps to look for the botanical name, Rudbeckia hirta, on the plant tag.

But growers use ALL kinds of names on plant tags, so this isn’t always a sure thing.

The next question you may be wondering is,
“Okay, so how long do hairy Black-Eyed Susan plants live?”

Generally, Rudbeckia hirta are “biennials” or “short-lived perennials.”

They go through a 2- and sometimes 3-year life cycle, and then they’re done.

Depending on your garden center, you’ll likely find young, leafy Rudbeckia hirta in the “perennial” section of the store — the section with plants that come back.

But, Rudbeckia hirta can be sold as “annuals” too.

Because it’s never simple, oye!

Annuals give you colorful flowers for one season, but typically don’t return next year.

So, you also may find types of Rudbeckia hirta in the “annual” section of the store, along with other plants that only bloom for one season.

Examples of varieties of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) often sold as annuals: Prairie Sun, Autumn Colors, Sonora

You can just enjoy varieties like these for the summer and fall, and pull them out at the end of the growing season.

But if you have them in your flowerpots and you WANT to see if they’ll come back, you also can move them to the ground in the early fall to see if they’ll return next year.

Depending on where you live, these plants may survive a winter or spread through their seeds.

Even though Rudbeckia hirta plants tend to be short lived, they CAN make new plants from their seeds, so Black Eyed Susan may keep reappearing in your garden year after year.

Surprise!

(But reseeding is a topic for another day.)

Okay, back to our comparison photos.
What do you notice about Plant B?

Fuzzy leaves on Black-Eyed Susan vs smooth leaves on Black-Eyed Susan

Fuzzy stem on Rudbeckia vs smooth stem on Rudbeckia

Plant B has smooth stems and leaves.

It’s a different species of Black-Eyed Susan.

Specifically, it’s the longer-lived Rudbeckia fulgida.

Fulgida loosely translates to “shiny” or “glimmering.”

Think of it as a shiny-leafed Black-Eyed Susan.

Examples of Rudbeckia Fulgida: Goldsturm, Little Goldstar and Early Bird Gold

I’ve included some varieties above you may find in your local garden center.

‘Goldsturm’ is VERY popular.

It was the 1999 Perennial Plant of the Year — an award given to plants that are standouts from other varieties.

This plant should return for many years.

Let’s chat for a second about mountain gardens at high altitude.

Typically, the types of Black-Eyed Susan we’ve chatted about will successfully grow up to about 9,000 feet.

If you live above 9000 feet, you can still try them, but you may want to put them in a more sheltered spot in your garden.

Also, the hairy version of Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) tends to have a slightly higher tolerance for cold winter temperatures.

If you’re familiar with plant hardiness zones: A zone indicates whether a plant is likely to survive the winter. Many Rudbeckia hirta grow well up to Zone 3. But Rudbeckia fulgida normally grow better in Zone 4 (or warmer). Find your zone here.

Last but not least, which Black-Eyed Susan is “native?”

A native plant is one that has existed for a VERY long time in a specific region and has thrived without human intervention.

In this case, Rudbeckia hirta (hairy Black-Eyed Susan) is native to the central United States.

If you are interested in native plants for your garden, you may prefer growing Rudbeckia hirta.

Bring on the Black-Eyed Susan!

These aren’t the only species of Black-Eyed Susan, but they’re popular ones. And they’re a great place to start for your western garden.

The next time you’re at the garden center, look for Black-Eyed Susan plants.

Touch the leaves and stems to see if they feel fuzzy.

If you feel hair, you’ll know what that clue is telling you:

You likely have a shorter-lived plant.

Parting thoughts: This article is intended as an overview. It’s good to check the plant tag, or even better, read an online plant description from a grower for the specifics on the plant you’re buying, such as its resistance to animals, how long it should live, its plant hardiness zones, etc. There can be many nuances among individual plant varieties.

Pretty flowers are like a good wine — they’re best shared with friends.

If you like this beauty, please share this article with friends.

© 2020-2021, Go West Gardener
You’re welcome to share a link to this article on social media sites, but no other re-use in any form without written permission.

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Ann from Go West Gardener with her flowerpots and garden

Hey there, I'm Ann

I’m a Certified Colorado Gardener, dog mama and Midwesterner-turned-Colorado girl. I help budding gardeners in the inter-mountain west get more confident with flower gardening, so you can create an outdoor space you love. More about Ann >>

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