Wildflower Names: Black-eyed Susan and Sweet William

by Mary Pellerito
As I was searching for how native plants got their names, I came across the story of Black-eyed Susan and Sweet William as told in an old English poem by John Gay (1685-1732).

Here is the first stanza of the poem:

“All in the downs the fleet was moored,

Banners waving in the wind.
When Black-eyed Susan came aboard,
And eyed the burly men.
‘Tell me ye sailors, tell me true,
If my Sweet William sails with you.'”

Susan was searching for her lover, William, prior to his departure on a long sea voyage. She’d been crying and had black circles around her eyes.  Sweet William — Susan’s pet name for William — consoled Susan as the two of them said their final farewells. Legend has it that “black-eyed Susan” (Rudbeckia hirta) and “sweet William” (Dianthus barbatus) bloom at the same time to celebrate their eternal love for each other.  And they look lovely together with her golden yellow and his bright reds and purples.

Rudbeckia hirta is a North American native wildflower and grows throughout the United States and Canada. Her common name was probably given to her by early British colonists when they arrived in the new World.

The genus name for all Black-Eyed Susans is Rudbeckia, named for the Rudbecks, a famous Swedish father and son both named Olof. Olof the Elder (1630-1702) established the first botanical garden in Sweden. His son, Olof the Younger (1660-1740) was a scientist and professor. One of his best-known students was Carolus Linneaus, the man who devised our system of plant nomenclature.  A modern descendant of the Rudbecks is Alfred Nobel, originator of the Nobel Prizes.

Dianthus barbatus is native to Southern Europe and was introduced to Northern Europe in the 16th century and later to North America. It has naturalized in all these areas.  Sweet William represents gallantry, finesse and perfection.

No one is sure how Sweet William got it name, but it most cases, “Sweet William” refers to a warrior. “Sweet William” is often said to honor the 18th century Prince William, Duke of Cumberland and his victory at the Battle of Culloden.  However, English botanist, John Gerard, referred to Dianthus barbatus as “Sweete Williams” in his garden catalogue of 1596, 150 years before Culloden.  Some think the flower was named after Gerard’s contemporary, William Shakespeare, but it could also be named after Saint William of York or after William the Conqueror.


Mary Pellerito is a Michigan-based garden and nature writer. Mary is a member of the Garden Writer’s Association, Wild Ones, and she is a Master Gardener.  This article was previously published on her blog Going Native.

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