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Rudbeckia laciniata 'Hortensia'

If you are a regular follower you may notice a difference. Shortly after posting last month's blog my longtime friend, outstanding gardener and model for a good human BIG SUE Arnold suggested I should try a different font to improve readability. My options were few, but I obliged. Thank you, Sue.

Rudbeckia laciniata (cutleaf coneflower) is a widespread North America native. The genus name honors Linnaeus' patron Olof Rudbeck the Younger. The species name (laciniata, which means slashed or torn) refers to the strangely divided (almost pinnate) dull dark green, toothed leaves. This 6-8-feet tall, heavily branched, glabrous and glaucous, herbaceous perennial typically is found in open wet sites, especially along streams and around swamps. Cutleaf coneflower is the popular common name but there are others, e.g., green-head coneflower, tall coneflower, sochan, thimbleweed and goldenglow. In fact, the cultivar name 'Golden Glow' has been assigned to a cultivar similar to the feral form. The monikers outhouse plant or shithouse daisy sometimes have been used because this forb is tall enough to screen a privy.

'Hortensia' (see top pic above) is an intriguing heirloom cultivar of cutleaf coneflower. Most literature sources indicate that this comely variant was discovered and first introduced in the mid 1890s, near the end of the Victorian era. However, I have seen references with earlier dates so there is some question as to whether or not the 1890s is the actual starting point. Nor was I able to pinpoint the exact location of the discovery. [Do you know more? I would appreciate learning the specifics, and the source.] Regardless, the cultivar name for this stunning mutant is either from the Latin hortus, which means garden, or possibly also in tribute to Hortense, the famous female speaker in ancient Rome. Curiously, hortensia and hortense are the Spanish and French words for hydrangea.
'Hortensia' is the same size and its leaves and stems look like the wild progenitor but the inflorescence does not (see bottom pic above). In mid summer to fall 'Hortensia' has an abundance of 3-4-inch diameter fully double flowers produced singly atop long slender branches. As a member of the large sunflower family (Asteraceae aka Compositae) each "flower" is actually and literally a composite of many flowers. The pompom-like heads of 'Hortensia' are all ray (ligulate) flowers. The central cone (receptacle) portion of the cultivar is either absent or greatly reduced with a corresponding reduction in function (i.e., rarely any fruit/seed production). The location of the few spontaneous reports from the Chicago region (along roadsides and prairie restorations) leads me to suspect there is at least some viable seed production. When in bloom 'Hortensia' is captivating even from afar. Looks something like a floribund lemon Dahlia with a smaller inflorescence. The doubled flowered Japanese Kerria (Kerria japonica 'Pleniflora') is the same flower look in miniature. The cutleaf coneflower cultivar 'Goldquelle' appears to be the same mutation as 'Hortensia' albeit from a different time and likely a different place. 'Goldquelle' plants may be somewhat shorter. 'Herbstsonne' aka 'Autumn Sun' is a marketed award-winning selection of coneflower. A source I often consult and recommend (Plant Finder @ Mo Bot) suggests 'Autumn Sun' may be a hybrid, R. laciniata X R. nitida -- seems plausible. Regardless of the form, and with or without flowers, cutleaf coneflower is impressive. However, this is not a plant for everyone. It is not a fancy plant. I really like it, but you may not, or perhaps your type of garden (your technique) is not appropriate. If so, perhaps you should question what you do and/or where you do it. Honest reflection is always helpful.

Yes, 'Hortenia' is impressive when blooming, but I want to take a minute to point out that too often we focus on those ostentatious flowers. I get it, but please realize plants often have other splendid physical features and/or behavioral characteristics. For example, I find the light lime and faintly striated stems of cutleaf coneflower lovely. I especially enjoy the way the darker leaves play against the lighter hued stems. Plus, like with every angiosperm, the vegetation is available for viewing much longer than the flowers. Moreover, if the soil is allowed to dry, this species will be leggy and, starting near the bottom, the leaves will first yellow then wither brown and dangle. Be attentive since damaged plant tissue has little if any ability to recover -- in this case the leaves starting to change color on their way to becoming nonfunctional. The declining and spent leaves are easily removed -- do not require cutting. The remedy is preventative maintenance. Also, see #2 below.

Beyond the issue of where to obtain the plant (see #8 below), a common issue with species like cutleaf coneflower is how/where they get planted. Know this, many problems associated with plants and gardening are as much, or more, the planter's fault rather than the plant. A failure to both be objective and to site the plant properly/appropriately given stature and tendencies. Too often in gardening we make it about what we want, with little to no consideration about what the plant(s) need. That is, treating plants as inanimate objects, like furniture -- merely decorative. And when choosing plants, it should be more than color wheel compatability. Gardeners should want to know about the preferences of our chlorophyllous companions, and attempt to accommodate in order to get the best possible specimen(s).

While I do not consider cutleaf coneflower weedy, it is a vigorous grower and can spread in optimal conditions (i.e., the clump diameter will slowly enlarge). I have seen the word aggressive used to describe this plant but that characterization is too strong in this case -- the spread is just one attribute and the expansion is an inherent tendency of both the wild form and cultivars. Moreover, use of the term invasive to describe this species is flat-out wrongheaded. And, since 'Hortenisa' is sterile (sometimes maybe not, see above)), its movement is limited to vegetative propagation -- asexually below ground by rhizomes, a manner common to many Asteraceous species. This expansion is easily controlled with a shovel and occasional effort. You might also consider an in-ground barrier to limit the increase. Best not to crowd the plant, and it is likely to eventually take and fully occupy whatever space you give it. Accordingly, I suggest digging and dividing the colony (starting over) every five or so years to maintain robustness and to limit the spread. By-the-way, unlike with older specimens of many ornamental grasses, an open/dead clump center does not develop.

Getting to know plants permits us to make better choices -- species, placement and care. Accordingly, another complaint about cutleaf coneflower is the tendency to flop under the weight of its "flowers" especially after heavy rain. 'Hortensia' definitely needs some support when in flower. In nature the stems would get bracing from the surrounding associated vegetation. I have sited specimens in a couple of places along a sunny intermittent stream that snakes through my property, perfect there paired with natural associates like common boneset, cupplant, garden phlox, goldenrod, ironweed, loosestrife, queen-of-the-prairie, swamp milkweed, touch-me-not, wild petunia and various graminoids (especially mace-head sedge). These associates also provide vaying amounts of support. (SIDE NOTE: I introduced dodder (Cuscuta) to this assemblage a decade ago and annually get a mid to late summer display of this small curious twining orange plant parasite on some of the species.) I also tried confining a stand of this coneflower with a peony hoop to provide support but the commonly available hoop style is not big enough (diameter or height). Accordingly, I produced some wider (20") and taller (46") hoops using rebar which I insert in the ground to give a top rail height of 30-32 inches. I also use these more substantial hoops for other plants like common peony, wild senna and some roses. FYI, I spray paint the hoops flat black. Frankly, this coneflower expands too much to make any hoop useful for more than a few years. Another trick you might consider to avoid a floppy habit is pinching the tips in late May to promote shorter stems. Perhaps we should employ some modern Frankenstein biology and shrink the plant or reduce the number and size of the gorgeous pompom-like inflorescences. And while we're at it, let's consider adding fragrance :)

Cutleaf coneflower, especially the more fecund wild form, attracts lots of insects. Deer seem to avoid all forms of the plant, which I would not have predicted and find strange, although I recently read that the plant may be somewhat toxic to livestock. Again, this does not make sense as the leaves of sochan, the Cherokee name for the plant, are eaten (a foraged green). Moreover, the claim that this species causes hay fever (allergic rhinitis) is groundless. As with goldenrods, cutleaf coneflower is insect pollinated (entomophilous) thus guilt by association, i.e., flowering time, appearance (leaf and size) and habitat, which are similar to giant ragweed, and due to ignorance. Giant ragweed is a real hay fever culprit and common cutleaf coneflower associate. Q: If you have made the hay fever or other false attributions/presumptions, on what basis? Always consider the source of your info. Is the advice based on actual experience or are you simply and gullibly passing on something heard or read? We commonly do this, but much advice is second hand and specious -- often made-up, based on conjecture or misinterpretation, or dependent on your unique conditions/techniques. And, just because you like an idea DOES NOT make it true. Know this, in gardening rather than following "the advice" most people offer, it is usually a better idea to trust the plants (i.e., be observant and learn). Furthermore, gardening guidance based on real experience from the region near where you garden is usually more reliable, and the closer the habitat variables are to your's, the better. If lucky, you might have a real local gardening guru. A source you can trust with broad-based experience. They are rare. Take advantage of every opportunity to get the wisdom.

A few additional cultivation observations and suggestions:
(1) I DO NOT recommend using cutleaf coneflower as a "stand alone" surrounded by mulch as the dahlia-like flopping will be exacerbated, and this refined/artificial look, especially with dyed mulch, seems awkward (a mismatch),
(2) cutleaf coneflower is drought tolerant, but like many wild forbs it can look a little tired after flowering, especially the plants at the margin of the clump as well as the lower portions, and particularly if the soil is allowed to become dry -- leaves will be more sparse, less dark and droop when dry conditions prevail,
(3) I sometimes site a plant in a less than optimal location as a means to stunt growth, but would NOT do so for cutleaf coneflower for the reason cited in #2,
(4) you might give some thought to cutting back the plants post anthesis to stimulate reflowering,
(5) this species could present issues in a confined space,
(6) best in a naturalistic, full sun setting, with moist rich soil; the more optimal the conditions the bigger the plants, but this also increases the need for support,
(7) a naturalistic / cottage garden setting also allows one to mask the sometimes less attractive lower portion of the plant with other vegetation (see text above), plus the coverage/competition will help limit the aforementioned spread and reduces associated maintenance, and
(8) if you live in the Indianapolis area, Soules Garden usually has 'Hortensia' for sale, usually dug upon request.

In spite of its peculiarities (what or who doesn't have them?), how can I not like and promote a big, beautiful and easy to grow native like cutleaf coneflower? But I rarely see 'Hortensia' used in gardens. Frankly, I do not see many gardens -- mostly, and sadly, just lawn dominated yards punctuated with a few frequently neglected and/or butchered and usually pedestrian plants. Gardening can be truly exciting, gratifying and therapeutic, obviously I encourage it, but most people have no idea what good is or how physically demanding some of the associated and required horticultural activities can be. How do I know "they" have no idea? The profound scarcity of gardens and the condition of properties is a dead giveaway. Alas, the vast majority of the population does not care, nor do they want to be told or to change, even when shown a much better path.

The rant next month is really long and a stinger -- I usually write these essays months in advance, then study and tweak until ready for posting, but I am kind of flying blind. I requested input from my readers eight months ago (Jan 2023 rant postscript, which see) but got only two comments even though there are >10K of you.

While direct speak and sarcasm can be entertaining and a tonic, they can also take a heavy toll. Too much can be a gateway to the steep walled pit of bitterness and despair. I prefer beauty and harmony, thus my love of nature and gardening, but I am a realist. Our self-inflicted environmental damage is severe and I wonder if we are past the tipping point. Alas, there is SO MUCH denial and delusion our situation seems futile -- too little, too late. The corporate status quo trumping the need for profound immediate change to the way we live (our behavior) with an emphasis on safeguarding an inhabitable place for all biota rather than just more consumers, products and associated convenience. I'm disappointed, clearly mad and doing what I can to help. What about you? Know that I have given some thought to stopping, to going silent, joining the delusional crowd and becoming one of the oblivious (as a palliative) but how does the caring human and teacher in me see, which I do and I will, and then resist the urge to both point out and help, to criticize and provide guidance? Guess we will find out soon enough. At least my activities allow me to vent and I hope that I am making some positive difference. -- And life goes on, until it doesn't. TMB


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