The other Rudbeckias
The elegant cones of Rudbeckia occidentalis first caught my eye many years ago as I was walking up the four-wheel drive road leading to the Capitol Lake trailhead. I was a newcomer to the valley and reveling in the mountains and Aspen forests, so different from the oaks and maples of the shores of Lake Ontario. I was excited about this tall, dramatic plant with the longest, darkest, most velvety purplish-black cones I had ever seen. I thought they were seedheads whose ray petals had fallen. Looking it up later, I came across this entry in the 1988 Dover republication of The Range Plant Handbook by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service published in 1937: niggerhead (sic) is a coarse perennial herb of the aster or sunflower (composite) family. It is sometimes called western coneflower, the specific name occidentalis meaning western, and the flower heads being conspicuously cone-shaped. I tried to find more ethnobotanical information about this characteristic plant of Aspen forests hoping it would shed light on the origins of the curious early name of this curious plant but wasnt any more successful than I was at germinating the pinch of seeds I collected. It sure germinates well and thrives in overgrazed rangeland though.The only part of my garden wet enough for R. occidentalis is at the back of the border where a patch of mauve-flowered Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) flourishes with extra water I bet they would look great together. I am tempted by a cultivar that sounds even more exotic than the species, a 3-to-5-foot hybrid called Green Wizard sold as seed by Thompson & Morgan and as a plant by Digging Dog Nursery (which also lists several other uncommon Rudbeckias I really want). The pictures show a plumper warm brown cone ringed by golden stamens served on a doily of stiff bright green sepals. Together with goldenrod and Rudbeckia laciniata, another moisture loving area native, they would make a bold statement all summer into fall, enticing butterflies and birds at every stage.I was surprised to meet a patch of what looked like the quintessential cottage garden goldenglow that has graced my mothers garden for half a lifetime near the spring that supplies Basalt with the best-tasting water in the world (or at least those parts of the world I have visited) until it is augmented with well water to meet the high summer demand. I was particularly struck by the contrast between Rudbeckia laciniata, cutleaf coneflower, wild ancestor of the garden heirloom, and the sagebrush and Pinion pines just a few feet away on higher, dry ground. By coincidence, I had planted goldenglow seeds from my mothers garden in a retaining wall planter along the steps to the vegetable garden, below a slope planted in gray-leafed drought adapted western shrubs, unwittingly duplicating this contrast. That tickled me when I realized it. My goldenglow grows with pale yellow perennial hollyhocks, a bit ragged but doggedly blooming after outgrowing another season of munching hollyhock weevils. They look better together than I expected with a touch of purple from a veronica behind them and some red valerian at their feet.Rudbeckia laciniata seems to bloom as long as the flowering stems are tall and they can get to be 6 to 8 feet. The stems, emerging out of a coarse-textured mound of deeply cut bright green leaves, are topped with bunches of yellow flowers, reflexed ray petals drooping around yellow-green domes of disk flowers in a relaxed but graceful way I find very appealing unstudied elegance we would have called a certain sense of style in high school home ec. class. Bud domes are presented on green bracts just a bit wider than the flower and when petals fall, the bracts are revealed again under the seedheads, which remain attractive all winter.The native is every bit as beautiful as its cultivar, maybe better since it stands sturdily upright while the garden plant tends to collapse under the weight of disc flowers all transformed into golden pom-poms of ray flowers. My mother controls its lax and rampant habit by growing it along a fence it can lean on and cutting armloads of flowers for bouquets that arrange themselves.The genus Rudbeckia is as American as apple pie, and for a really soggy, poorly-drained spot in your yard, you cant do better than these two dramatic species, Rudbeckia laciniata and Rudbeckia occidentalis, which happen to be natives of our backyard.Anna gardens with her husband Gerry, in Basalt. She wishes she had a soggy place in her yard to grow more moisture-loving plants. You can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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