Our Autumn Rudbeckia

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Red wanders around on Rudbeckia ‘Autumn Colors’

Most of our Blue Ribbon Rudbeckias come from the German breeding firm, Benary. They ship the most interesting material because they have a deep commitment to the genus and a long history of quality cultivars. It’s funny that a German breeder has taken up the flag of an American native, but Benary has been a force in international horticulture since the Prussians nearly two centuries ago. They’ve been selling Rudbeckias since they started back in the 1850s.

In a sense, Benary is entangled in the story of America. Germans were the primary immigrants after the Civil War, during Benary’s go-go years. Most of these Germans became farmers, and since Benary was in the seed business they knew that quality Rudbeckia would be part of the appeal to the new, sturdy Cincinnati locals.

What we find interesting is that Benary considered Rudbeckia important enough for its own dedicated breeder. This remains true today—the post is held by an American working out of fields in California. Their commitment, measuring decades, results in the most useful Rudbeckia for American gardens today. Let’s take a look at our favorites.

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‘Toto Gold’—the classic Black-Eyed Susan in a short, tight package


We begin with the three Toto selections that form the foundation of Rudbeckia decor work: Gold, Rustic, and Lemon. Benary developed all three back in the 90s, putting the Black-Eyed Susan look in a smaller, more floriferous, and more appealing plant. These varieties became front-of-the-bed material, measuring about 12 to 18-inches in bloom height and gaining notoriety for their bloom count.

Gold is the classic flower everyone knows, whereas Lemon delivers the same look with lemon-bright petals. Rustic is the bicolor with a red center—it’s usually considered the fancy one. All three feature an extra-tall center button, marked by a tall pollen stack that forms a ring of gold around the cone itself.

Our short Toto series is at left in this lineup—note the height difference

‘Indian Summer’ is twice as tall as a Toto, with the same Black-Eyed Susan look. This is an improvement over the wild version because ‘Indian Summer’ blooms more generously, has better reblooming success, and exhibits improved late season disease resistance.

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‘Prairie Sun’—the clear eye has a very light central stain


Red varies in Rudbeckias but in ‘Prairie Sun’ it’s gone missing. Technically, the flower is a bicolor but you have to look very hard to see the slightly butterscotch stain in the center of the yellow daisy. Even more unique is the light green eye, which turns a field of ‘Prairie Sun’ into a carpet of yellow. Normal Black-Eyed Susan dots the picture with brown rather than painting a bed with a coat of pure yellow.

In terms of size, ‘Prairie Sun’ is a hulk because it has tetraploid genes. Having more genes than the usual plant often means more of everything. For example, the plant grows almost (not quite) three feet tall, and the flowers can measure a solid five inches across. This fact is true for both ‘Prairie Sun’ and its cosmic opposite, ‘Autumn Colors’.

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‘Autumn Colors’ with a mid-sized stain and a pollen ring around the cone


If ‘Prairie Sun’ is the stable yellow, then ‘Autumn Colors’ is the wild child of the family. It has a shape shifting red stain that runs rampant over all the flowers. Some flowers are lightly tinted and streaked; others look deeply steeped in maroon tea with a hint of yellow. We get a different show from plant to plant, and from season to season. It’s the same tall bloom and the same daisy flower, but with a completely different look.

What makes the red especially chaotic is the trigger—the temperature of the air when the blossom forms. ‘Autumn Colors’ tends to have more yellow in August when it is warm outside; the very same plants bloom with more red in October when temperatures are cooler.

Actually, the plant has two triggers: genes and temperature. If the roll of the genetic dice awards red genes to the plant, the temperature dial must still be spun to see when that red gets expressed. This double-random whammy makes ‘Autumn Colors’ a sheer riot of changing patterns across the flowers.

Size-wise it’s a giant. Due to the tetraploid nature of their genes, crazy ‘Autumn Colors’ and tightly wrapped ‘Prairie Sun’ deliver big flowers on big plants.

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Bright yellow petals and tight flower cluster of ‘Toto Lemon’


Rudbeckia generally blooms in the August–September time frame. Plants exhaust themselves by the end of their season, but that happens in October when the frost starts to visit. This also means that even perennial varieties won’t last beyond a few years. Because Rudbeckia invests so much energy into those showy flowers there is little left to live on afterwards. It is not meant to be a durable forever planting.

 You’ll find Rudbeckia likes full sun and can handle competition from grasses and other prairie-like weeds. It rewards a nice home of soil and water with extra flowers. Soil can be the standard stuff or even a little lean—the same goes for the water routine. Remember that the first week of settling in makes a difference, so some mulch or extra watering at the beginning helps.

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Notice the lack of yellow in Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’—it’s all gone


Simple Rudbeckia is great for homespun Mason jar arrangements and pretty day bouquets, whereas cultivars like ‘Prairie Sun’ and ‘Autumn Colors’ can anchor tall, dramatic vases. Their lifespan in a vase runs about average—nothing like a strawflower, but they don’t wilt overnight. Do put them into water quickly because they don’t self-seal their ends very fast.

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Button cone of ‘Cherry Brandy’—Rudbeckia eyes are incredibly dense with fibers

 An interesting quirk is the center button. Rudbeckia doesn’t dry well because the outer ray petals wither and look unattractive. That center button is fairly sturdy, however, and will dry. If you are willing to brush or pluck the outer petals, you’ll end up with an interesting bouquet of large dark buttons, with or without stems. Décor examples escape us at the moment, but with a little imagination you can come up with some unique projects.

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An example of the heavy top color offered by ‘Toto Rustic’


Rudbeckia is a popular summer and autumn flower around Cincinnati. It offers the diversity to make it an interesting creative choice as well:

Short Versions for Décor and Garden

- Gold = ‘Toto Gold’

- Yellow = ‘Toto Lemon’

- Bicolor = ‘Toto Rustic’

Tall Versions for Fields and Masses

- Gold = ‘Indian Summer’

- Pure Yellow = ‘Prairie Sun’

- Stained = ‘Autumn Colors’