Susan, Shasta and the Coneheads
I know, it’s a bit silly and it sounds like the name of a 60s rock band… but it’s what pops into my head when I think of the glory of summer daisies. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia sp.), Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) and my personal favourite the “not-just-purple” coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) really are a necessity in the garden. Let me explain. Everyone loves the spring garden, flowers are popping up everywhere, leaves are unfurling a vibrant green and everything is fresh. Then comes the dog-days of summer, lawns have dried up to a golden colour, many plants have finished their show, and things start to get well… a little bit boring in the garden. We desperately need something fresh, new and glorious in the summer garden. Welcome to the summer daisies.
I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like a daisy, they are simple, they invoke a sense of innocence and purity. Their composite flowers that look like little suns in miniature, they are… dare I say… iconic. Generally, they just make everyone smile. Then add the fact that they arrive when we need them the most, when the spring flush is past and the garden might just be looking a bit pique. Everyone should plant some.
These three summer daisies share many physical and growth traits. Obviously, they have similar growth habits, they are herbaceous (dying down to the ground in the winter) clump forming mostly perennials (there are a couple of annuals and biennials, but more on them later). They are perfect for pollinators, if you are considering planting a butterfly garden, Look no further. Hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies are all attracted to summer daisies. Oh, and did I mention, most are ridiculously easy to grow as long as you know a little bit about them.
Plant them in an area that has moist soil but good drainage. Don’t worry about fertilizing them past a top dressing of compost in the spring (in fact, too much nitrogen can mean less flowers and leggy, floppy plants). And make sure that they have a minimum of 4-6 hours of sunlight (depending on what you are growing, always check your labels before you buy a new plant).
There are very few pests and diseases that affect them. It’s mostly just a list of the usual suspects of aphids, the odd slug, a leafhopper or two and mites. There are a few specific diseases that can affect them but more on that in the specific below. They are generally worry free. Drought tolerant once established, so just water them well in the first year and then enjoy not having to worry about them after that. Deer resistance is something else these flowers boast… but I think that depends on the deer in question. I’ve known many a plant to be celebrated as deer resistant only to have a hungry herd enjoy an alfresco meal at my expense. I always recommend starting off by planting one “sacrificial plant” and see how it goes, then start to plan an en masse planting if your plant escaped the season mostly unmolested.
While flowering times vary slightly depending on the particular plant in question most will start to bloom in the early to mid-summer and continue to flower right into the fall. Deadheading is recommended as it will encourage the plant to produce more flowers, and keep your plants booming. But I advise to lay off in late summer so the plants can prepare for dormancy and produce some seed. Seed heads can be left to overwinter and will provide food for the local birds.
So that is the general gist of the summer daisies, now let’s get into the fun stuff.
Leucanthemum, Shasta Daisies
The genus Leucanthemum contains more than 30 species of both annual and perennial plants. But Shasta daisies are the iconic daisy we all think of when we hear the word daisy. Leucanthemum x superbum was first bread by the Luther Burbank and named after the majestic snowcapped Mount Shasta in Northern California. Snow-white flowers, just like the peak of its namesake, with butter-yellow centres, the standard Shasta grows 60-90cm tall. Some garden snobs poo-poo the Shasta as passé, boy are they missing out. I agree that the old-fashion ones can be a bit annoying due to their tendency to flop over without staking (I’m not always the most attentive “staker” which sometime means the daisies can end up a sprawling hot-mess). But new more compact cultivars mean you can have the purity and charm of a daisy without the work. Besides, they bloom from June all the way through to September, what is not to love?
If I had to find one flaw in the Shasta daisies it would be their particular odour. I am not going to lie, it is not pleasant, but also not particularly strong, so perhaps if you are sensitive to smells plant them at the back of the bed and admire them upwind.
As for care and maintenance they don’t need much other than the regular deadheading and dividing every two to three years or as needed. If your clump of daisies appears to be dying out in the middle then it’s time to divide them. Pests and disease, the usual suspects apply (see above) as well as the chrysanthemum nematode, leaf spot, verticillium wilt, and stem rots. But don’t let this list discourage you, problems with the Shasta are relatively rare. If you plant them in a good sun or part-shade, moist but well-drained spot they will reward you with a plethora of blooms.
Here are a few of my favourite cultivars to look for:
‘Becky’ is a larger growing Shasta getting 90-120cm tall but with rigid stems that do not require staking. The abundant pure white flowers are perfect for the back of a border.
‘Snow Lady’ also has rigid stems that hold classic white flowers up proud for all to see but since the plant itself only get to be about 30cm tall, you might have to look down to admire them. Perfect for a pot, the front of a planting or a small garden. In 1991 this plant won an All-American award.
‘Snowcap’ is quite similar to “Snow Lady” with its pure white rigid stems and diminutive 30-37cm size but has the added benefit of heat resistance. Consider for a site that has lots of sun.
‘Whoops-a-Daisy’ from Proven Winners, besides having a fun name, has a compact 38cm tall growth habit and boasts to be blanketed in flowers. Perfect for the patio or container garden.
‘Crazy Daisy’ is a fun alternative to your typical classic daisy shaped flower. Its creamy white flowers are semi-double to double and they look almost fluffy. Growing 65cm tall they have strong upright stems and no staking required.
‘Victorian Secret’ is another daisy with semi-double flowers that look ruffled (a bit more refined than ‘Crazy Daisy’). It’s a good choice in hot areas, and has a semi-compact 45cm growth expectation. But the real bonus of this plant is the lack of odour. So, if you are sensitive to smell but still want your daisies, search this one out.
‘Banana Cream’ has giant flowers that open a bright lemon yellow and then mellow to a creamy white as they age. A vigorous grower and disease resistant, 45cm perfect for growing in a pot
Rudbeckia, Black-eyed Susan
Almost impossible to kill is how I would describe some of the rudbeckias, and then there are others that die reliably. That’s because they come in both perennials, annuals and biennials. For those of you new to the game, perennials are long living (they come back year after year), annuals only live for one year and biennials live for two years. No matter how long they live they are hardy, drought tolerant, and easy to grow. It’s why you see it used so extensively in commercial landscape plantings; step one: plant, step two: water, step three: walk away.
Rudbeckias start to flower in July and continue on through to October. Another bonus is they don’t generally need dividing, so they are the perfect no-maintenance plant (which is another reason they are used so extensively in landscape plantings). The flowers come in shades of yellow, orange, russet, bronze and mahogany. So not the greatest range of colours but they are the kind of colours I am craving in the garden in August and especially in September. Available in a range of sizes, you can find dwarf cultivars that only reach 30cm tall to “ginormous” ones that top out at 270cm tall. So, make sure to read your labels and know what you are getting into. As for specific pests and diseases (other than the usual) there are reports that the cabbage moth might consider taking a nibble, but I would be more concerned about the cabbages than the rudbeckia.
As for finding the best rudbeckia to plant there are two main groups to choose from, the perennial Rudbeckia fulgida and the annual/biennial Rudbeckia hirta.
Rudbeckia fulgida – these are the perennial rudbeckias. If you are a beginner this is a great plant to start with, it is just so easy to grow.
‘Goldsturm’ standing strong at 60cm tall, the brown-eyed golden-orange flowers of this plant are so familiar looking because they are used so extensively. It was awarded the honour of Perennial Plant of the year in 1999
‘Little Goldstar’ is almost identical to ‘Goldsturm’ except in size, a more diminutive 40cm tall.
Rudbeckia hirta – In certain situations the cultivars of Rudbeckia hirta are short-lived perennials, but they require good drainage to overwinter. This is not always the best for our “wet-coast” but the good news is they often self-seed and naturalize so in effect act like a perennial in that you will have them coming back in subsequent years. I like to think of them more as an annuals with possible multi-season benefits. They also bloom so prolifically, and wait till you see the cultivars of Rudbeckia hirta and you might just change your mind about their pesky annual nature.
‘Cherokee Sunset’ the double and semi double flowers come in shades of yellow orange, red bronze and mahogany. The prolific flowers appear in early summer and continue on until the frost. Grows to 75cm tall.
‘Cherry Brandy’ the flowers are crimson on the outer edge and then transition to a deep chocolate-burgundy colour that is just so rich and velvety. It stands at 60cm tall and blooms from early summer to Fall
‘Sonora’ with large golden flowers that have a ring of mahogany surrounding the chocolate coloured centre. Grows to 60cm tall and blooms from early summer long into the Fall.
Echinacea, Purple Coneflower
I’ve saved the best for last, as I like call them the “not-just-purple” coneflowers. Most people are familiar with echinacea as an herbal cure for the common cold, but if that is your only experience with these beautiful summer daisy-like flowers then you are missing out. The coneflowers are stunning and you might have guessed that they now come in many colours other than just purple. The reason we call them purple coneflowers is because most of the garden varieties we have come from the species Echinacea purpurea (literally purple echinacea). There are ten different species of echinacea that are native to eastern and central North America and they are plants of the prairie and open wooded areas. All these species except Echinacea purpurea have a type of root called a taproot, purpurea grows from a more fibrous root system. Guess which does better in a garden setting, and especially in containers? Yep, Echinacea purpurea for the win.
Some west coast gardeners struggle to grow these glorious plants, others find them to be the easiest thing in the world. The secret is in planting them in the right spot. They need sun and well-drained soil; the best situation is to give them regular water but allow them to dry out a bit in between. Try to remember where they naturally grow, the prairies and open woodlands, if you give them a situation similar to what they have spent the last 1000 years or so adapting to, they will be happy and reward you with many beautiful flowers.
Flowers appear in July and continue on into October. Echinacea can sometime experience some difficulties with vine weevils, leaf spots and powdery mildew, but these are all quite manageable and if the plants are well situated, they plants will grow well and not be greatly affected.
Now on to the fun stuff, some excellent cultivars to go and search out.
‘Sombrero Salsa Red’ the large (7cm) fiery orange-red petals surround a chocolate brown cone. An early prolific bloomer, it grows 60-65cm tall and can spread 40-55cm wide.
‘Green twister’ is perfect if you are looking for something a bit more unique. The outer edges of the petals are a yellow-green colour that transitions into pale lilac-pink near the bronze coloured centre cone. It’s a bit taller than other cultivars reaching heights of 90-100cm, so consider planting it near the back of your garden bed.
‘White Swan’ is an elegant addition to the garden. Pure white petals reflex down away from the copper cone, so that the flowers have a delightfully droopy look. The flowers have the bonus of being honey scented. Grows to 60-90cm tall.
‘Magnus’ with its big, bold rosy purple flowers it’s easy to see why it was named the perennial plant of the year 1998. The flower petals are held flat which makes them stand out even more in the garden. Growing up to 90cm tall, so don’t plant them at the front of your garden.
‘Cheyenne Spirit’ is hands down my favourite. An all-American deletions gold medal winner in 2013, the rich colour ranges through sunset shades of purple, pink, red, orange, yellow to cream (not to wax too much poetic but the flowers of these plants almost seem to glow with an integral light). Large 7-10cm wide flowers, they are very sturdy and upright. Growing 45-90cm tall.
Now that summer has finally arrived it’s time to start thinking about planting our gardens to provide us with season-round colour. After all, we are spending more and more time at home, lets get outside and enjoy the summer in garden. Plant some summer daisies, put on some 60s music, grab a cold drink and enjoy.