–Originally published in the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society Summer 2020 Newsletter
You can have beautiful garden flowers that also provide a fall and winter feast for birds to keep them going through cold weather. These two work well together to make a spectacular display for both you and the birds.
Black-eyed Susan — A garden favorite
Black-eyed Susan is a name that covers several closely related and similar-looking species including Rudbeckia hirta and Rudbeckia fulgida. They are a popular garden plant and are widely available (although see the cautions in our April issue about buying plants from sources that may treat them with toxic insecticides).
Their virtues for the human gardener are many: They brighten up a bed with cheerful yellow petals and a dark center; they can take conditions ranging from full sun to part shade and are drought-resistant once established. The blooms continue from mid- or late summer into the fall, providing an extended display. Use them as great cut flowers. You can even start them from seed if you want to be thrifty or cover a large area.
Not just for humans!
They also have special value to wildlife. They are attractive to pollinators including many bee and butterfly species, which come for their nectar and pollen. Most important for our purposes, though, they’re great for birds. Their main attraction for birds comes at a different stage than for bees and butterflies. Birds aren’t after their nectar or pollen. What birds love about Black-eyed Susans are the seeds that become available after the flowers are done and the seed head looks brown and dried out. Because this happens only after the blooms are spent, they provide a great late-summer / early fall food source for seed-eating birds.
American Goldfinches are big fans of black-eyed Susan seeds and will adorn your garden with their own gold and black colors as they perch on the stalks picking out the tiny dark seeds. Other birds that are attracted to black-eyed Susan seeds include chickadees, Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, and sparrows.
Should you deadhead?
You may know that “deadheading” (cutting the fading flowers off before they set seed) can keep some plants blooming longer. That’s because they will put up new buds to try to produce seed. It works well for Black-eyed Susans – deadheading will keep your cheery display going much longer.
If you cut off all the spent flower heads, though, you’re removing the part that the birds need! A good compromise is to deadhead some of the flowers for a while to keep your patch blooming longer, but leave some to start seed production. And, as the season winds down, leave all the remaining flowers on the stalks so that birds can feed on them through the fall and winter.
Purple Coneflower — Soul-mate of Black-eyed Susan
Often grown along with black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are another favorite of both pollinators and birds, for the same reasons – nectar and pollen for the bees and butterflies, seeds for the birds. Their purple petals make a nice contrast to the yellow of black-eyed Susans in both the garden and a vase. They are happy with lots of sun and easy to maintain once they get established. Because they’re tall, place them farther back in a bed with black-eyed Susans further front.
I often find that the seed heads look untouched for a while, but over the winter they start to be picked clean. Birds will find them when they need them, which may vary depending on what other food sources were plentiful that year.
It’s great to know that your garden is providing birds with nutritious, all-natural seeds, and you don’t even have to hang a feeder!
Black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers are some of the toughest, most dependable garden plants around. But, like just about any plant, they do occasionally have problems. “Aster yellows” is a disease that affects a number of plants, especially in cool, wet summers. It causes bizarre abnormal growths of the flowerhead. (Google it and see for yourself!)
My purple coneflowers were affected the last couple of summers; the black-eyed Susans less so. Once a plant is infected with it, it will be a source of transmission to other plants. Bite the bullet and pull those plants out and destroy them. Both of these plants re-seed themselves readily, so you’ll probably have new ones filling in anyway.
If you want to grow from seed
Like many other plants, the seeds of both these plants need a period of cold before they will germinate. Sow the seeds in the fall for spring germination, or at least in March before warmer temperatures arrive. Seed packets are inexpensive, but you can even try starting new patches for free by scattering some fully mature seedheads or their seeds in new spots in the fall. (If nothing comes up, the birds and other critters may have enjoyed them!)
For more about the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, please visit https://www.lvaudubon.org/mission