Purple Coneflowers, Black-Eyed Susans, and Michaelmas Daisies
The Aster family of plants is very large and contains some beautiful flowers. Three of my favourite members of the family are the purple coneflower, the black-eyed Susan, and the Michaelmas daisy. They each produce a glorious splash of colour when they bloom and can often be seen near each other where I live. They are not only attractive plants but are also associated with some interesting facts.
The family Asteraceae (formerly Compositae) is commonly known as the aster, daisy, or sunflower family. The name Compositae is appropriate because of the composite flower structure. What looks like one flower is actually an inflorescence made of many smaller flowers, or florets. The inflorescence is often known as a capitulum or a head. The flowers in the central disk of the capitulum are appropriately called disk florets. Each "petal" surrounding the disk is a ray floret.
Every living thing has a scientific name consisting of two (or more) words. The first word of the name is known as the genus and the second word as the species. The genus is capitalized, but not the species. The entire name is printed in italics.
The Purple Coneflower
The ray flowers of the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) are white, pale pink, or purple-pink in colour. The central disk is raised and domed. It looks like a spiny, dark orange or red cone. These features give the plant both its common and its scientific name. The name Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinus, which means hedgehog.
The purple coneflower is a perennial plant that is pollinated by insects. The flower is said to be a magnet for bees and butterflies, which I can believe, as least as far as bees are concerned. I often see the insects on coneflowers. The ray florets of the flower are sterile, as they are in many members of the Aster family. The function of these florets is to attract insects. The disk florets contain stamens, which are the male reproductive structures, and a pistil, which is the female structure.
The fruits of purple coneflowers are known as achenes. An achene is a small, dry fruit that contains only one seed and doesn't open at maturity. Sunflower seeds are probably the most familiar example of achenes for many people. The "seeds" are really fruits that contain the seeds. The leaves of coneflowers are generally long, narrow, and lance-shaped. They are usually toothed.
There are generally considered to be nine species of wild Echinacea. They are native to the eastern part of North America. Many cultivars have been created for landscaping. The flowers bloom from mid to late summer.
Possible Health Benefits of Echinacea
Echinacea has long had the reputation of helping to fight the common cold and of boosting immunity. It's very popular as a herbal health remedy. Three species are used medicinally, including E. purpurea. The flowers, leaves, and roots are all used as medicines. The plant is sold as a tea, capsules, extract, and tincture.
Echinacea is often promoted as a treatment for disorders of the upper respiratory tract, especially the common cold. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence for its health benefits is mixed. Some investigations suggest that the plant improves the action of the immune system and reduces the risk of catching a cold or shortens a cold's duration. Others say that it has either a very minor effect or no effect at all on the common cold.
One problem in testing the effects of Echinacea may be the condition of the plant. The environment in which the plant is grown and the freshness of the plant may influence its medicinal properties. In addition, some parts of the plant may be more beneficial for health than others.
Purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans are often grown next to each other in parks and landscaped areas, at least where I live. Their vibrant colours create a dramatic display. Both plants grow well in full sunlight and are drought resistant.
The Black-Eyed Susan
Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta and similar species) have flowers with rich and contrasting colours. The central disk is dark brown and the rays are golden-yellow. A large group of black-eyed Susans in bloom is both a cheerful and an inviting sight. The disk of each flower is domed, like that of a coneflower. Interestingly, Echinacea was once classified in the genus Rudbeckia.
Like many asters, black-eyed Susan grows in the wild and as a cultivated plant. As a wildflower, R. hirta is native to central and eastern North America. It's either a biennial plant or a short-lived perennial. In the first year of its life, it grows a rosette of leaves. The leaves are lanceolate (long and lance-shaped with a pointed tip) or ovate. Some have teeth on their edges. The leaves and the flowering stems are covered by short, stiff hairs and are said to be hirsute.
In the second year of its life, the plant produces flowers. The plant blooms in the summer and early fall. The ray florets are sterile and the disk ones are fertile. The fruits are achenes. Occasionally, black-eyed Susans flower in the first year of their life.
How Did Black-Eyed Susan Get Its Name?
The derivation of black-eyed Susan's name isn't known for certain, but it's thought to have come from a popular poem written by John Gay (1685–1732). The poem tells the story of Susan saying goodbye to her beloved William, who is about to set sail with the fleet. William returns Susan's affection and expresses his love and his regret that he must leave. The poem begins with the following stanza. The wording varies slightly in the versions of the poem (or song) that have survived, but they all convey the same message.
All in the downs the fleet was moored,
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came aboard;
‘Oh! where shall I my true love find?
Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true,
If my sweet William sails among the crew.’
Sweet William is another popular garden plant. It bears clusters of attractive flowers that are pink, red, or variegated in colour. It's also appreciated for its spicy scent. The derivation of its name is uncertain, but it didn't come from the poem above. In the past, the term "Sweet William" was commonly used in poems and songs for a man who was experiencing unrequited love.
Black-eyed Susan is the state flower of Maryland. The name Rudbeckia honours Olaus (or Olaf) Rudbeck, a Swedish botanist. He was a teacher of Linnaeus, the scientist who gave us the binomial system of naming organisms scientifically.
The Michaelmas daisy blooms well into the fall and is associated with the festival of the same name. Michaelmas is a Christian celebration that takes place on September 29th each year. It's held in honour of the Archangel Michael, sometimes known as Saint Michael, as well as the other angels. In the Anglican tradition, which is the most familiar one to me, the day is also known as the Feast of (Saint) Michael and All Angels.
Historically, Michaelmas had a meaning beyond its religious one. It was used as a marker in time and celebrated as a harvest festival. September 29th was close to both the start of the last quarter of the year and the autumn equinox. It was the time when rent was due and debts had to be paid. The date occurred during the period when the harvest was gathered and was accompanied by a celebratory meal.
A goose was a traditional part of the Michaelmas meal. Baked grain products and autumn fruits such as apples and blackberries were also eaten. Legend said that Michaelmas Day was the last day on which blackberries could be safely picked. The devil was said to have landed on a blackberry bush when he was thrown out of heaven. As a result, he cursed the plant—or in some versions of the legend spat or urinated on them—making the berries unfit for human consumption.
Michaelmas is a festival that honours the Archangel Michael. He is said to have led the fight against Satan and played a role in the devil's expulsion from heaven. The name of the festival is a contraction of the words Michael and mass. It's pronounced "mickelmus".
The Michaelmas Daisy
Although some people may associate the word daisy with a flower with white petals and a yellow centre, this description doesn't always apply to Michaelmas daisy flowers. The disk florets are yellow to orange and the ray florets are white, pink, blue, purple or lilac, depending on the species or the cultivar. The intensity of the colour varies. Sometimes the flowers in a single clump have different colours. Unlike the case in the plants described above, their central disk doesn't form a dome.
The term "Michaelmas daisy" refers to a number of species in the aster family that have a similar flower appearance. The scientific name of the European Michaelmas daisy is Aster amellus. It's a perennial plant with long and narrow leaves. The most common flower colour seems to be a shade of purple or lilac. The plant blooms in late summer and well into the fall. The fruit is an achene.
The flower colour and the late blooming time makes it easy to imagine why the daisy attracted people's attention at Michaelmas. The feast of St. Simon and St. Jude mentioned in the old rhyme below took place on October 28th.
The Michaelmas daisies, among dead weeds
Bloom for St. Michael's valorous deeds
And seem the last of flowers that stood
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude— Unknown (Traditional rhyme)
Flowers of Summer
The Aster family contains some wonderful species for a garden. Every summer, I look forward to the appearance of purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and Michaelmas daisy flowers. Although I don't grow them myself, the plants are very popular in my local parks and botanical gardens and are easy for me to find. Observing their flowers and other plants in bloom is a very enjoyable part of the season.
- Purple coneflower facts from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
- Effects of Echinacea on the common cold from WebMD
- Information about the state flower (black-eyed Susan) from the Government of Maryland
- Black-eyed Susan song from Whalsay's Heritage of Song, The University of Edinburgh
- Michaelmus and daisy information from Historic UK
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Linda Crampton