It's been 20 years, 1997 to be exact since the Georgia Gold Medal program gave the award to one of the most persevering native perennials of all time, the Rudbeckia triloba.
At the time, finding one at the local garden center was rare even though it is native in 34 states. If you think about it, it is quite remarkable that a plant with no dazzling name other than the three lobed rudbeckia or brown- or- black-eyed Susan would grab its place not only in fame but the market place as well.
Rudbeckias were rocking in popularity back then with Indian Summer, a Rudbeckia hirta winning the All-America Selections Award in 1995 and Goldsturm a Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii winning the Perennial Plant of the Year in 1999. Today we are still buying them, all of them, including the native brown-eyed Susan the 1997 Georgia Gold Medal Winner.
Every year as I would take my family to Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain Georgia they're reflections could be seen across lakes in bold sweeps with Joe Pye weed and the swamp hibiscus. In their wildflower garden, it was the same, absolute dazzling color with a swarm of pollinators.
At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, ours are shoulder-high in most locations. They are partnered with salvias, old fashion summer phlox and the native spotted monarda all in a cloud of pollinators I can't identify other than the butterflies.
Geographically speaking the Rudbeckia triloba is native to most of the country. It can be grown in many different soils and is cold hardy from zones 4-9 or from Texas to Minnesota and most states east. And for this reason, it is considered America's Plant.
The dark-brown center coned flowers have petals of yellow-orange and produce in abundance from late summer into fall. Some references suggest that the plant is biennial or a short-lived perennial; others say perennial that reseeds too. One thing is for sure, if you plant the Rudbeckia triloba, you will have it around one way or the other for a long time.
If your garden is plagued by tightly compacted clay that doesn't drain well amend with 4 inches of compost or organic matter and till in 6-8 inches. While tilling, take advantage of the opportunity and incorporate 2 pounds of a slow release balanced 8-8-8 or 12-6-6 per 100 square feet of planting area.
Choose a location that gets plenty of sun for best blooming. You'll want to space your plants 24 to 36 inches apart planting at the same depth they are growing in the container. You certainly can plant by seed, and they will bloom the first year. Fall is also a perfect time to plant giving you a jump start come spring.
If you have dreamed of a wildflower garden, let this be your starter plant. Plant an odd numbered cluster of 3 or more with blue salvias, anise hyssops or Agastache, Joe Pye weeds, native iron weeds, spotted beebalm, and purple coneflowers, and you'll soon be walking a path of rare beauty partnered with the sounds of pollinators moving all around.
(Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru.)