Sunday, September 6, 2015

Black Eyed Susan: A World of Green for All Comers.

Arid Summer on the High Plains where Black Eyed Susans Thrive
Under a cloudless sky, the already arid earth of the high plains bakes even drier.  Grasses, briefly green in June,  now turn to a dusky patchworks of yellow and brown in August.  As if the symptoms of widespread desiccation were not emphatic enough, the air fills with smoke from forest fires rampaging up and down the not too distant spines of the Rocky Mountains.  But precisely at this moment under an implacable even if hazy sun, congregations of Black Eyed Susans - where there is one there are always many - unfurl their great yellow blossoms and thrive.  I spent considerable time in their company recently at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park and was reminded yet again of my love for this common plant, ordinary in its demeanor but preternatural in its capacities.

Bee Fly (Bombylius major) and Spidfer Wasp (Pompilidae)
Sharing a Blossom
The black eyed susan is a member of the genus Rudbeckia, named and classified as Rudbeckia hirta by the celebrated Carl Linnaeus only two centuries ago.  This occurred in Sweden, a place far, far away from the plant's native environs of North America.  For that reason among others I prefer the common name which at least suggests how much at home this living kind and its charismatic cousins - sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes - are in North American soils.   My earliest memories of childhood are teeming with black eyed susans that filled the vacant lots and sprouted in every other crack in the cement sidewalks lining the streets of my neighborhood.  Perched on wiry green stems swarming with hairy filaments, their composite flowers, composed of deliriously yellow petals, arranged in lazy circles around brown-domed centers, entranced me.  Checking in regularly on each blossom's daily tracking of the sun across the sky punctuated my mornings and afternoons of outdoor play.  And picking a few to bring home in the evening was not an uncommon event, although tearing away the sticky, fibrous stems from their mother plants took some effort.  In all of this, I was offered an enthusiastic introduction into that sort of flora inhabiting my place under the sun that did not need to be planted in carefully-troweled beds around a house and assiduously watered and weeded from then on.  In the wayward places beyond the confines of a well-groomed yard I encountered the joy of things that grow effortlessly, that know how to look out for themselves and then some.

At the jump, those memories of black eyed susans welled up as I encountered their kind anew.  On the other hand, after a bit of reading that evening, I learned that these stands were in truth only what biologists term "naturalized" citizens of this particular area, emigrating here in the last century or two from the midwest, where they were originally at home.  Indeed, they arrived just, it appears, as the buffalo who were endemic to the short grass prairies of the high plains were in the process of being wiped out by European settlement.  But settlement seems far too kind a word for the practices of mass slaughter and habitat destruction that were involved in that terrible moment of species extirpation.

Dingy Cutworm Moth (Felita jaculifera) Resting.
Those who write about black eyed susans universally observe that pollinators are fond of them.   This turned out to be exactly the case with the plants lining the road along the boundary of the First People's Buffalo Jump State Park.  Taking a break from my assigned task of removing the lowest strand from a barb-wired fence (so antelope could scooch under the barrier safely), I took picture after picture as I discovered species after species making its way about the various contours of the plant. Some were interested in the nectar, particularly the bee flies with an occasional honey bee and orange belted bumble bee showing up to join in the feast.   Other species meandered about the stems of the plants - yellow jackets and blue spider wasps for the most part - intent, it seemed to me, on licking up the sticky residue exuded there.  A dingy cutworm moth, nocturnally active but diurnally recumbent, lounged for the day on the seed head of one blossom, wrapped in its shade.  The moth was not inclined to move.  And of course ants, western thatching ants in this case, were tracking all over the plant, looking for whatever meal might show up as they tended aphids, which in turn exuded their own sugary treat of honeydew, as they grazed in clutches under the flower heads and on the bottom sides of leaves.


Western Thatching Ants (Formica obscuripes) on the way to and from
 an Aphid Clutch.
The black eyed suzan, it turns out, names not only a living kind but also a world.  After an hour or so spent up close to a single plant, the latter truth comes into focus.  Providing shade, moisture, food, more or less steady perches in gusting wind, and a multitude of hiding places, the plant's very anatomy carves out a green oasis in the midst of an arid, daunting landscape.  Within its ambit, a variety of living kinds gather to find themselves more or less at home.  As insect after insect sees it, these stems are great limbs, with a girth equal to or exceeding one's own.   Western yellow jackets curl about them, fluently in tune with their contours, while the blue spider wasp paces up and down them, as well as over and under every leaf, continually on the move with only a pause here and there. To the bee fly, a lightweight continually at odds with the prairie winds permeating its surroundings, the composite infloresences' great brown domes, speckled with a multitude of disk flower heads, provide opportunity after opportunity for a drink of nectar without the need to battle again into flight.  And for creatures in search of moisture in a dry land in a dry time, the black eyed susan is also hospitable.  All plants are chemical factories, armed with a variety of defenses that deter almost every creature under the sun from helping themselves to a bite.  Inevitably an arms race ensues with only a few species specialized enough to overcome each respective plant's defenses and make a meal of it.  The black eyed susan goes another way.  Whatever defenses it has mounted, they are not directed to the swath of living kinds one finds thriving on plant after plant under a late summer sun.

Two Bee Flies Working the Nectar
What is there not to love about the generosity of this remarkable even if fully ordinary living kind?  Surely this is a rhetorical question.  But leaving off my remarks on this deservedly appreciative note would not be responsible without also observing how unsettling, literally and metaphorically unsettling, the presence of the black eyed suzan in this particular country turns out to be.  For its appearance, as noted above, is historically recent and inextricably tied to the disappearance of a rich prairie ecosystem that was sustained by great herds of buffalo once flowing over this land.  One should not forget that every step upon the site of the First Peoples Buffalo Jump commemorates those herds and the rich legacy they continue to hold for more than a dozen tribes who remember this animal's presence and mourn its loss.

Thinking about the past in this way inevitably leads my mind to tread in strange directions.  Following out one bearing, I remember how the black eyed susans I encountered lined one side of the road - the side bordered by the state park - but were absent from the other side, which abutted a farmer's field of wheat assiduously cultivated to the road's very edge.  Any black eyed susan that dared spring up there had quickly withered and died.  Surely herbicides were involved.  In a detail, then, is illuminated the history, my history, of European occupation of this place.  Our settlement of the west left in its wake a landscape capable of feeding many human mouths but extremely stingy in regard to the desires of other than domestic animals and agricultural crops to find their own patch of earth under the sun.   Even a hardy and relatively new arrival like the black eyed susan, generously offering a full range of ecological services to a landscape callously depleted of its capacity to sustain living kinds, is fought with tooth and nail, or plow and sprayer as the case may be.

But following out another bearing I find myself imagining what it must have been for those tribal peoples to love a creature as magnificent and ecologically significant as the buffalo.  I grew up consorting with black eyed susans.  What would have it been like, I wonder, to have had the same opportunity to be instructed in the ways of the living world in the shadow of a buffalo?  This question remains a significant one and is the inspiration for a variety of ongoing projects in Montana to return buffalo to some approximation of an open range.  Perhaps the black eyed susan will find its place under the sun there too.

Great Golden Digger Wasp 
(Sphex ichneumoneus)

Big Wasp Meets Little Wasp in Uncertain Circumstances

Yellow Jacket Patrolling her Particular Spot in the Shade


  1. Such an elegant essay! Your interweaving of love and admiration for the black-eyed susan world, your alertness to the ecological history, perhaps I should be saying ecocide, that led to its proliferation, your thoughtfulness in positioning yourself within multiple worlds, including the world of death by herbicide ... all this supple beauty of thought works exquisitely with your glorious writing and your scarcely believable photography. Thank you dear Jim.

  2. Nearly a year late, Deborah, please let me thank you for your generous comments. It's helpful to hear how others read these entries. It's a privilege to hear how you do.