The Differences Between a Black-Eyed Susan and a Sunflower

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Black-eyed Susans often bloom in low-growing masses.
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Common sunflowers (​Helianthus annuus​) and black-eyed Susans (​Rudbeckia​ spp.) may easily be mistaken for one another, as both plants bloom in summer with bright yellow flowerheads marked in the center by dark brown disks. There are plenty of differences between the plants, however. Identifying each plant's features allows you to figure out how best to utilize them in the home garden.

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Sunflowers Are Larger

Sunflowers tend to grow taller than black-eyed Susans, generally reaching heights between 3 and 10 feet tall, with some varieties growing as high as 16 feet. Black-eyed Susans tend to be low-growing, with a bushy habit. Common black-eyed Susan species, such as ​Rudbeckia fulgida​ and ​Rudbeckia ​ hirta, grow to be about 3 feet tall, with a similar spread.

Black-eyed Susans have small, raised discs in the center of flowerheads, while sunflowers have larger, flatter discs. Sunflowers also have wide, large leaves that are rough to the touch and triangular, while black-eyed Susans have narrow, oblong or lance-shaped leaves.

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Black-Eyed Susans May Live Longer

Though there are perennial sunflowers, most ornamental garden sunflowers are annuals and may be cultivated during the growing season anywhere in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 to 11. They will perish once frosts strike in autumn.

The black-eyed Susan genus contains both annuals and perennials. Common garden varieties, such as ​Rudbeckia​ ​fulgida​ and ​Rudbeckia ​ hirta, both may be grown as perennials in USDA zones 3 to 9.

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Sunflowers Are Edible

Sunflowers produce edible seeds that may be harvested at the end of each flowerhead's life and eaten either raw or roasted. These seeds attract birds and squirrels, which are uninterested in black-eyed Susans.

Seeds can be harvested by cutting off the flowerheads once the backs have turned from green to yellow and letting them dry out in a dry, warm place. The yellow petal-like florets on sunflowers are also edible and may be eaten raw as a garnish. ​Rudbeckia​ ​hirta​ is not only inedible, but it may be poisonous to livestock such as sheep, pigs and cattle.

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Black-Eyed Susans Tolerate Wind

Black-eyed Susans and sunflowers have similar cultural preferences, with both preferring well-drained, moist soils and full sun exposure. Black-eyed Susans are tolerant of strong wind, however, while sunflowers tend to develop tattered foliage in windy situations.

Sunflowers over 3 feet tall should be loosely tied to a stake to keep them from falling over. Black-eyed Susans are often massed together rather than grown as specimens and do not have an upright growth habit that mandates staking. Perennial black-eyed Susans may be divided in the spring to increase vigor.

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Additional Differences — and Similarities

The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas and a member of the aster family (Asteraceae). It is also said that the heads of sunflowers follow the sun, which isn't completely true. Instead, the flowers and leaves tend to bend toward light due to a process known as heliotropism.

The Black-eyed Susan is the state flower of Maryland and is also a member of the aster family. There are more than two dozen species of black-eyed Susans that are native to different parts of North America. Both sunflowers and black-eyed Susans attract a variety of pollinating insects, including butterflies and bees.

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Michelle Wishhart

Michelle Wishhart is a writer based in Portland, Ore. She has been writing professionally since 2005, starting with her position as a staff arts writer for City on a Hill Press, an alternative weekly newspaper in Santa Cruz, Calif. An avid gardener, Wishhart worked as a Wholesale Nursery Grower at Encinal Nursery for two years. Wishhart holds a Bachelor of Arts in fine arts and English literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz.