Our Autumn Rudbeckia

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Red wanders around on Rudbeckia ‘Autumn Colors’

It’s no surprise that Benary, the German breeding firm, dominates our Rudbeckia program. They ship the most interesting material because they have a deep commitment to the genus and a long history of releasing good variations on the Black-Eyed theme. 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 were farmers, and since Benary was in the seed business they knew that quality Rudbeckia would appeal to the German families surrounding Cincinnati. This genus has been in their catalog since the beginning.

What we find interesting is that Benary considers Rudbeckia important enough for its own dedicated breeder—the post is held by an American working out of fields in California. This commitment results in the most useful Rudbeckias for the American home and commercial markets today. Let’s take a look at why these varieties work so well.

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Rudbeckia ‘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 during the garden market boom, packaging 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.

Short Totos at left, landscape cultivars at right—note the height difference


Whereas the Toto series is meant for display and garden work, ‘Indian Summer’ was bred for stands and landscape work. It’s twice as tall as a Toto, with the same Black-Eyed Susan look. This cultivar is an improvement over the wild version because ‘Indian Summer’ blooms more generously, has better reblooming success, and exhibits improved late season disease resistance.

This underscores a key feature of Benary breeding. Their work breaks apart into two groups: the short and the tall. Within each series, we get three or four clearly distinct colors. From that point, it’s sweet and simple—pick out the design tool needed from the toolbox provided.

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


It turns out that Rudbeckia red is malleable—crazy malleable. We can delete it or juice it. In ‘Prairie Sun’ it’s gone. Technically, the flower is a bicolor but we 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 the landscape 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, 'Autumn Colors' 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 its flowers—a suitable planting for the landscape outside the evil lair of CHAOS.

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 the plants invest so much energy into those showy flowers they have little left to live on afterwards. Rudbeckia is not meant to be a durable forever planting.

It does like full sun and can handle competition from grasses and other prairie-like weeds. Plants reward 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, built with densely woven fibers, so it actually does dry well. If you are willing to brush or pluck the outer petals, you’ll end up with a bouquet of large dark buttons, with or without stems. Décor examples escape us at the moment, but we have some pretty imaginative customers. If you do a unique project with Rudbeckia buttons, please send pictures.

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


Judging from both the sales and the requests we get, Rudbeckia is a popular summer and autumn flower around Cincinnati. It offers the diversity to make it an interesting creative choice as well. Our autumn program is designed to satisfy both markets, covering both low-color and high-color applications.

Short Versions for Décor and Garden

  • Gold = ‘Toto Gold’
  • Yellow = ‘Toto Lemon’
  • Bicolor = ‘Toto Rustic’

Tall Versions for Fields and Stands

  • Gold = ‘Indian Summer’
  • Pure Yellow = ‘Prairie Sun’
  • Stained = ‘Autumn Colors’

We sell these varieties in 4.5-inch, 6-inch, and 8-inch pots.