Black-eyed Susans

Preakness starting gate at Pimlico in May 2011. Credit: Fisherga via Wikipedia

Crab cakes and football aren’t really the only things Maryland does. Today on the track at Pimlico, the 139th Preakness race will be run. It’s the second jewel of American Thoroughbred Racing’s Triple Crown and also known as the ‘Run for the Black-eyed Susans’ because they are the state flower of Maryland.

Black-eyed Susan blossom Credit: Photo taken by user Lorax and released under the GFDL via Wikipedia

The Latin name for the Black-eyed Susan genus is Rudbeckia hirta. It’s a common American wildflower with bright yellow petals and dark domed centers. Some garden varieties are regular annuals, but many of the true wildflowers are biennials, producing only green foliage their first year and flowering their second. The blooms are frequently visited by bees, butterflies and other insects for their nectar.

Black-eyed Susans Credit: Isolino Ferreira via Flickr

But who was this Susan? Why were her eyes black? It dates back to a folk song written by John Gay popular in the early 1700s. The poor girl was saddened because her true love William was about to shove off to sea. Don’t worry, he consoles her with the fact that he will be safe and true while away. Riiiight. There’s no follow-up poem so we never know if they end up happily ever after together, but really how bad was maritime service in 1720? I’m sure he was fine. We may not know about the people, but some gardeners do favor companion planting of Black-eyed Susan flowers and Sweet Williams. At least botanically, they do well together.

All in the dawn the fleet was moor’d,
The streamers waving to the wind,
When Black-eyed Susan came on board,
Oh where shall I my true love find?

Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true,
If my sweet William, if my sweet William
Sails among your crew?

The Preakness also serves a cocktail called the Black-eyed Susan made with vodka, St. Germain liquer with pineapple, lime and orange juice. It sounds unbelievably sweet to me. Probably sweeter than that William guy and I could imagine how easy it would be to overindulge in them. Yet, while it boasts the name Black-eyed Susan and it is the characteristic yellow color of its namesake flower, another flower is one of the main components. For those of you unfamiliar with St. Germain liquer, it’s flavor comes from Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra).

Elderflowers Credit: Eiffel via Wikipedia

צילום: שרה גולד, צמח השדה [CC BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

For all their celebration, you will not find any real live specimens of Black-eyed Susans at Pimlico today. These wildflowers don’t bloom until later in June in Maryland. Even if they were, they are a wildflower that would be too delicate to be used in such an elaborate botanical blanket. Yet the winning horse is adorned with yellow and black flowers. These are just imposters. They are members of the chrysanthemum family (pompom mums or Viking’s daisies). They are close-enough look-alikes with their bright yellow petals, but florists painstakingly paint their centers with black shoe polish to give them their characteristic black eyes.

Yes, the real life equivalent of painting the roses red for the Queen in Alice in Wonderland. I doubt the winner cares too much, and I’m sure the flowers on the blanket look close enough to spectators especially after a few of the ‘Black-eyed Susan’ cocktails. Still- go home Maryland, you’re drunk!


Check out this link for the Run for the Roses.

References and Links:


One thought on “Black-eyed Susans

  1. Pingback: Carnations: The Blanket of Champions | New Under The Sun Blog

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