Deciphering plant tags: annuals, perennials and biennials

Purple and white iris flower

Do you remember the first time you went to a garden center? All those colors. All those plants. All those fancy tags with gobbledygook. Help! Plant terminology can vex everyone, even plant geeks. So let me give you the lowdown on some terms that flummox newbies and pros alike.  

The first thing you need to know is that for plants, it’s all about sex. Their number one priority is to make more of themselves. So they are committed to growing robustly to make flowers and seeds. How they get there is different. So we use words like annual, perennial, and biennial. These often confuse folks. Which one do I want? How do they work? What’s the best deal?

It’s all about a plant’s life cycle. Annuals live for a year. Perennials live longer. And biennials take two years to complete their life cycle. Annuals are especially driven to produce seeds because they only have one year to do so. So they push out flowers like mad to make more seeds.

Tithonia – an annual flower. Photo by Marie Bikle.

Annuals’ key selling point: color throughout the growing season. That’s why they are the darlings of container gardens, a blessing for filling gaps and ideal for a sweep of long-lasting color.  

Annuals are less expensive since they last only one season, dying with the first frosts. You can save seeds and replant them, but few do. Some come back from dropped seeds, but that’s rare. 

The downside to annuals is the need to replant them every year. So the cost savings may not be there in the long run and you spend much more time planting. 

In gardens, geraniums, begonias, pansies, marigolds, zinnias, petunias, and snapdragons are commonly treated as annuals.

Perennials are one and done, planted once and persisting for years. Most die to the ground with cold weather, but come back again from their roots, bulbs, or tubers. Most perennials bloom for about a month, but some bloom 2 or 3 times a season if deadheaded. So you don’t get the long flowering time of annuals, but they return year after year.

Perennials cost more but don’t need to be replanted. Plus, they give a different look to your garden throughout the growing season with myriad colors and forms. Perennial gardens have spring, summer, and fall wardrobes. They also are the gift that keeps giving, since you get free plants by dividing perennials every few years. This mitigates their initial higher price tags.  

There are hundreds of perennials including coneflowers, lavender, coral bells, coreopsis, columbine, bee balm, phlox, asters, and goldenrod.  

Biennials flower in their second season. They push out leaves the first year, then flower, make seeds and die in their second year. Hollyhock, foxglove and Sweet William are common biennials. Some biennials reliably reseed so they act like perennials with new plants coming from dropped seeds. Hollyhocks are notorious for rewarding growers year after year.   

I hope I’ve simplified some plant tag terms and made it easier for you to pick what’s right for you – and your gardens – on your next visit to a garden center. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

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