As summer winds down in Maine, my garden starts to look a little ragtag. The daylilies are just brown straws with fading foliage, peonies are long gone and asters yet to come. One bright flower marches straight through from jUly, however: Black-eyed Susan.
It can be hard to get this plant to "take," it has shallow roots and will die after transplant unless you get a good rootball and water it frequently. Once established, however, it will thrive, even in poor soil. I got to wondering about the name. The Black-Eyed" part is pretty obvious, but is there any special reason why Susan and not Anne or Jennifer or Inez?
Susan, it turns out, all black-eyed from crying, is the star of an eighteenth century ballard by John Gay, co-starring Sweet William, a popular name for lovelorn fellows in ballards; the famous Barbara Allen scorned her own Sweet William, to her regret. The John Gay ballard begins:
ALL in the Downs the fleet was moor’d,
The streamers waving in the wind,
When black-eyed Susan came aboard;
‘O! where shall I my true-love find?
Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true
If my sweet William sails among the crew.’
Another beloved garden flower is named for him: Sweet William the plant blooms about the same time as Black-eyed Susan. There's only one Sweet William in this house, however:
Sweet William's Farewell to Black-eyed Susan