Deciphering plant tags: annuals, perennials and biennials

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.

Wild ginger spices up the Maryland spring

As a pollination biologist, I have the immense privilege of studying really cool plants who trick their pollinators in fancy and incredible ways, and I tend to be naturally attracted to flowers that may not be super showy to most (but are among some of the most mind-blowing things in nature). These flowers are such a wonderful thing in their own right, and in this post I want to do them justice. Because it’s spring and some of these are starting to point their noses out of the ground, in today’s post I would like to (re)introduce you to a plant you may be familiar with, but that I hope after today you will get to look at with new amazed eyes (in case you don’t already 😉 ). Come with me and let’s chat a bit about the wonderful hidden queen of our forests: the wild ginger!

Is wild ginger, ginger?

The short answer is no. While ginger (the plant we eat) is native to Southeast Asia, wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is native to right here, and more specifically to the deciduous forests of Eastern North America. In case you are not familiar with the plant, it belongs to the family of birthworts, which have really interesting ways of interacting with their pollinators. Unlike other birthworts that tend to have flowers that hang in the air from the plant, wild gingers are very “shy” and the whole plant is restricted to the ground level.

Wild ginger is starting to peek out their leaves right now. Once the leaves are fully grown, they get their characteristic heart-shape and can create nice mats to cover the ground. Photos: A. Espíndola; threelark.

The plant is perennial (it lives for several seasons) and exits dormancy in the early spring when its heart-shaped and fuzzy leaves start to unfurl and emerge from the ground. Eventually, the plant becomes a little mat and over time it creates colonies. This is a reason why wild ginger can be a great groundcover plant to use under trees or in shadier and humid parts of one’s yard (see here for how to do this).

Wild ginger is cool – The flowers!

Unlike other birthworts, wild ginger holds its flowers close and parallel to the ground. Wild ginger’s flowers are not showy, being of dark brown and not very large. These flowers are engaged in mimicry pollination, meaning that “disguise” as something else (here, fungi), to trick pollinators into doing something they don’t necessarily want to do. In the case of wild ginger, the flowers are held low to the ground and close to the base of the stems.

Wild ginger flowers are displayed on the ground, at the base of the fuzzy stems. Being dark and close to the ground helps them lure their pollinators, small flies that feed on decaying matter. Photo: A. Carlson.

Wild ginger flowers are dark, particularly moist, and produce specific odors that attract small flies that feed on decaying matter. The tricking consists in making the flies enter the flowers to lay eggs in what the flies consider is fungi (their egg laying sites). While doing this, the flies contact the pollen-bearing structures, and while visiting different flowers, they cross-pollinate them. In this case, we talk about antagonistic interactions between the plants and their pollinators because the interaction does not benefit both partners. In fact, here the plants have the upper hand, and the flies simply loose their eggs to the plant since their larvae can’t feed on the floral tissues. If this is not sufficient to amaze you, keep reading; it gets better!

Wild ginger is cool – The seeds!

After pollination, the flower ovules grow into seeds. Unlike seeds in most plants, wild ginger seeds have a special “addition”. Indeed, the seeds have attached a special extension (called an elaiosome) that is particularly rich in lipids and proteins. This structure makes the seeds very attractive to ants, who collect the seeds, carry them away from the plant, and, after having consumed the elaiosome, discard the seed. By doing this, the seeds can get dispersed farther away from the mother plant, and the population can slowly grow and expand. Isn’t that super neat????!!!

The seeds of wild ginger have a special nutrient-rich body called elaiosome, which is a delicatessen for ants. This allows the plant to use ants to disperse their seeds. The shiny brown (left) and yellow (right) bodies attached to the seeds are the elaiosomes (arrows). Photos: Sid Vogelpohl, Arkansas Native Plants Society; B. Patterson.

Wild ginger as a human ally

Wild ginger was and is still well known to Native Americans of Eastern North America, and it is very likely that they were the ones who showed the European colonists how to use it. Among the Native names still known for this plant is namepin (see here to learn how to say it), which means “plant of small tubers”. Even though it is hard to find the original local names for Maryland tribes, we know that the roots of the plant were used to treat fever and coughs by Cherokees, Iroquois, and Rappahannocks, and that it is very likely that most of the tribes and bands of Maryland (e.g. Shawnee, Piscataway, Pocomoke, Assateague, Nause-Waiwash, Accohannock) use(d) it as well because the plant was and is abundantly present in the area.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

New! Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

Some plants are not cool, skunk cabbage heats up

IMG_3725-eastern skunk cabbage at pine hole bogEastern skunk cabbage at pine hole bog by dreamexplorer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The middle of the winter may seem like an odd moment to think about flowers. In fact, if I look out my window, I can barely see the ground, with most of it covered in snow or ice. So, flowers and all the greenery of spring and summer seem like something that happened in another world which today seems sooooo far away! There are some flowers, however, that defy some of these rules of low temperatures and do a revolution in nature (OK, maybe not a revolution, but still…). In today’s post, and although surrounded by ice and snow, I invite you to join me and warm up using the heat that some plants produce, since we’ll be talking about heat-producing plants!

Really?! Can plants produce heat?

The short answer is yes, which is super cool in itself. The long answer is yes, but let me tell you how, and what are the advantages of producing heat (and why not all plants do it).

The production of heat in plants is relatively rare, and this feature is found mostly in plants considered to have evolved a long time ago from an ancestor to most living plants. Today, heat production in plants is restricted to groups associated mostly with tropical and subtropical environments, such as water lilies, aroids, palms, and birthworts.

Unlike what we may expect, heat production in these groups has not evolved to keep the plant alive, but rather to help the plant reproduce. In these groups, heat production is associated with floral maturation and in particular to pollinator attraction. In these cases, different parts of the flowers increase their metabolism at a specific point in their development, leading to an increase of temperature that in some cases can be extremely noticeable.

In some cases, the heat has been described as a reward for pollination. (Check out this other post for other “special” rewards pollinators get from plants.) This is because it may occur at times of the year (or the day) when the environmental temperatures drop a lot, and when pollinators that visit the flower could benefit from an extra source of heat.

In other cases, heat is known to promote the release and spread of floral odors, which attracts the preferred pollinators. In many cases where heat production is present, it has been observed that plants also display a way to retain the pollinators, such as floral chambers, and in many of those cases the interaction between the plant and its pollinators involves luring and temporarily trapping the pollinators!

plants in the arum family
Some arum family plants (here, the European Arum maculatum) temporarily trap their pollinators. The species shown here displays a chamber in the lower part of its “flower” that is closed by hairs (shown on the right), which let the insects in but makes it hard for them to leave. While the flies are trapped in the chamber, the flowers mature, dropping pollen on the flies. These flies will be released after a while, and some of them will be caught again by another plant, leading to the cross-pollination of the species. Sneaky, sneaky! Photos: A. Espíndola.

While it takes a lot of energy from the plants to produce heat, this usually allows them to flower early in the season while other flowers are not around. This reduces inter-plant competition for pollinators, makes the plants easy to find by pollinators, and increases the chances of having pollen be transferred from one flower to another — all of which increases the number of seeds plants are able to produce.

Our very own heat-producing plant, the Eastern skunk cabbage

Many of you may be familiar with Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which is among the first plants we see peek out their leaves in the snow or the ice in the early spring. Besides being among the first plants to appear in our region, they are actually also among the first to flower, and that flowering and their pollination are intrinsically related to heat production.

Skunk cabbages belong to a mostly tropical family of plants, the arum family (Araceae). Fortunately to us, some of them do occur also in more temperate regions like ours (another native Araceae from our region is the beautiful Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum). As with many other Araceae (for example, the titan arum), skunk cabbage attracts their pollinators through the production of a very pungent odor, which gives the plant its common name. And like all Araceae, their flowers have a very special shape that allows them to not only produce but also retain heat.

skunk cabbage
The skunk cabbage has a typical arum family flower with a bract that covers the central part of the flower. The central part displays all the reproductive parts. In the picture shown here, it is possible to see the yellow pollen exposed on the flowers of this plant. During flower maturation, the reproductive part heats up, reaching temperatures of over 20˚C (about 70 ˚F)! Center and right images show pictures of the flowers taken using a camera able to measure surface temperature, with a color scale that relates shown colors with temperatures. Photos: left: Janet and Phil; center and right: Onda et al. 2008.

When their flowers start to mature, the “head” of the flowers heats up reaching temperatures of about 70˚F (!!!), even if the surrounding temperatures are below freezing. This heating leads to the release of aromatic odor bouquets, formed mostly by compounds rich in sulfides (thus, the stinky odor). Even though this odor may not be the most attractive to us, it is very much so to the skunk cabbage’s favorite pollinators: small flies and beetles that may be lured by the flower “thinking” it is their favorite food or egg-laying site.

In defense of the plant, though, even though the attraction may be slightly dishonest, the lured pollinators may actually benefit a bit from the visit. While some of them may indeed find laying sites on the plant material, most of them will benefit from the heat received, which especially that early in the season is a much welcome reward! This heat also allows the pollinators to become more active and sometimes even mate within the plant’s flower, which also benefits their own reproduction. Finally, and most importantly for the plant, through this heat release and all the insect movement associated with it, insects passively pollinate the flowers, getting covered in pollen and later transferring it to other equally stinky and warm skunk cabbage flowers. Isn’t this super cool?… I mean, warm?

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

New! Anahí is starting an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

Delightful Daffodils

Dutch Master Daffodil
‘Dutch Master’ Daffodils in Bloom. Photo: Rachel J. Rhodes

The signs of spring are everywhere from the sounds of spring peepers in the woods to the red hues of maple buds to the yellow blooms of daffodils. The tidbits of spring trickle in like the mist of early morning fog slowly then all at once. As if waking up from a long winter’s nap, you see buds on trees swell or the tiny green stems of bulbs that gently peak through the mulch. The next day, you hear the sounds of spring peepers. Then, all at once, the baby pink blooms of cherry trees are floating like confetti in a ticker-tape parade while crocus shine like amethyst and daffodils glitter like drops of gold in flowerbeds and all of a sudden, spring is here.

daffodils near the woods
Photo: Rachel J. Rhodes

As the daffodils I planted last fall leisurely woke from their long winter’s nap, I began to think about how beautiful they would be in a few weeks with their golden yellow cups and their egg yolk petals, my mind wandered to their name “Daffodil.” When I became a mother, names and the meanings behind them captivated me. As a parent, when you name your child you research everything: the meaning behind a name, where it originated from, the many spellings, and so forth. When the time came to hold my sons for the first time, I was completely and utterly prepared with names that would suit them. The names that would help define them and would help guide them as they traversed through our uncertain world. Did I put too much
weight on a name? Maybe.

As Juliet said to Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” There is a great name debate between Daffodils, Narcissus, and Jonquil. Daffodil refers to the common name for the spring-flowering bulbs in the genus Narcissus. Jonquil is the common name for Narcissus jonquilla within the Narcissus genus. To avoid any ambiguity, you can never go wrong by calling these flowers by their genus name Narcissus.

According to the American Daffodil Society, there are between “40 to 200 different daffodil species, subspecies or varieties of species and over 32,000 registered cultivars (named hybrids) divided among the thirteen divisions of the official classification system.” Daffodils range from the tried and true yellow trumpet to ones with double flowers and clustered flowers, to small cups, and ones with open cups. Flower colors come in an array of white to yellow to orange. There are even some with splashes of pink.

daffodil in bloom
Photo: Rachel J. Rhodes

Daffodils are hardy spring-flowering perennial bulbs that should return year after year. During blooming, they require generous amounts of water. After blooming, always deadhead the spent flowers. Even though daffodil foliage can get unruly, allow the leaves to remain for at least six weeks. You will see people braid or tie the leaves together with rubber bands. This timely endeavor results in the leaves manufacturing smaller amounts of food for the bulb, which in turn results in smaller blooms the following year. After the allotted six weeks have passed, you may remove the leaves.

For Maryland’s hardiness zones, plant daffodils in the fall (from late September to late November). The soil needs to be cool but the ground should still be workable and not frozen. Picking out bulbs is just like picking out the perfect apple. You want a bulb that is firm without blemishes. Bulbs should never be soft, damaged or moldy.

Daffodils are an easy dependable flower that is ideal for the beginning gardener. Don’t forget to pick some up in the fall for your garden!

By Rachel J. Rhodes, Master Gardener Coordinator, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, University of Maryland Extension. Follow the Queen Anne’s County Master Gardeners on Facebook. Visit the UME Master Gardener webpage to find Master Gardener events and services in your county/city.

Helen’s Flower Hails Pollinators

common sneezeweed flowers
Helenium autumnale. Photo: Beverly Turner, Jackson Minnesota, Bugwood.org

Helen’s flower is an underdog when it comes to native plants. It is not as well known or as popular as butterfly milkweed, bee balm, or black-eyed Susans — but perhaps it’s time for its day in the sun. It makes a nice addition to a pollinator garden.

Helenium autumnale is the species name of this North American native perennial plant. It goes by the (somewhat unfortunate) name of “common sneezeweed” because dried parts of the plant were formerly used for making snuff to induce sneezing. As an ornamental garden plant, it is not known to prompt sneezes from pollen dispersal (it relies on insects for pollination) and I prefer to address it by its lovelier common name, Helen’s flower… or just plain Helenium.

Wild Helenium autumnale boasts cheerful yellow button-like flowers tended by a skirt of turned-down petals in late summer to fall. Its natural habitat in Maryland includes swamps and moist riverbanks, so in your garden, it will like a location where it has some regular soil moisture. It can grow in full sun or partial shade and stretches in height from 2 to 5 feet tall. The flowers support a variety of pollinators such as bees, wasps, syrphid flies, butterflies, and beetles.

A wide variety of cultivars of Helenium are now available. They range in color from bright canary yellow to orange and crimson and various combinations in between. Many of the cultivars tolerate drier soil and have a more compact habit.

Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware conducted field trials of 44 Helenium species and cultivars from 2017 to 2019. They evaluated plants for their habit, vigor, disease resistance, floral display, and pollinator visits.

helenium flowers in a garde
Helenium flowers in a garden, “The warm glow of early Autumn” by hehaden, Flickr

Given the high interest in pollinator gardens right now, I was curious about their observations of pollinator visits in particular.

The native Helenium autumnale had the most observed pollinator visits (162), while the cultivar H. ‘Zimbelstern’ came in second (151). Both of these had excellent powdery mildew resistance as well. Other cultivars such as Helenium autumnale ‘Can Can’ and H. ‘Tijuana Brass’ also had excellent ratings for these two characteristics. The best performers in the study overall (considering all the characteristics evaluated) were ‘Kanaria’, ‘Zimbelstern’, and ‘Can Can.’

The native Helenium autumnale had the most observed pollinator visits (162), while the cultivar H. ‘Zimbelstern’ came in second (151).

For all the details and results of the evaluation, read the report online.  

If you plan to start (or add to) a pollinator garden this spring, do consider adding Helen’s flower if you have a moist site in full sun or partial shade. Mt. Cuba’s report provides good information on plant care, including staking and pruning tips and recommendations for managing the two most common diseases — powdery mildew and aster yellows.

To purchase plants, check the Maryland Native Plant Society’s website for spring native plant sales and nursery sources.

Visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for additional resources on native plants and gardening for pollinators.

By Christa K. Carignan, Coordinator, Digital Horticulture Education, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Read additional posts by Christa.

Winter Sowing: How I Get a Jump Start on My Summer Flower Garden

poppies
These June-blooming flowers were started by winter sowing. Photo: C. Carignan

Winter sowing is a technique gardeners can use to start growing seeds outdoors during the winter months. If you have limited space for starting seeds indoors, winter sowing might be an option for you, depending on what you want to grow.

I first tried winter sowing last year with several types of flower seeds. Winter sowing works best for plants that are cold tolerant or even require a period of cold in order to germinate. When you are looking at seed descriptions, look for words like “cold tolerant,” “cool season”, “hardy annual,” “perennial”, “sow in autumn”, “sow in early spring”, or “self-sows”. These words indicate the best candidates for winter sowing. Continue reading

Cardinal Flower Is for Hummingbirds

Cardinal flower
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Photo: C. Carignan

I gave up on my hummingbird feeder years ago. It was more than I wanted to do to keep up with changing the sugar solution every two to three days, as recommended to keep the food free of spoilage that could be harmful to the birds. I saw that hummingbirds would visit some of my garden flowers just as much as the feeder, so I decided just to provide flowers for them. More flowers for me, more natural nectar for them. A win-win.

In my garden, ruby-throated hummingbirds most often fed at my scarlet bee balm, blue salvias, brilliantly colored zinnias, and orange butterfly weed. This year they have an additional choice that appears to be their new favorite. It is the flower whose color resembles that of a different bird, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

This Maryland native plant produces 2-4′ tall spikes of bright, cardinal-red flowers that are irresistible to hummingbirds in mid to late summer. In fact, hummingbirds are an essential pollinator of these plants.

Cardinal flower was easy for me to grow from seeds sown directly outside. In the fall of 2016, I scattered seeds in a low area of my yard where water frequently would puddle after heavy rain. They sprouted and grew low foliage and a few small flower spikes the following season. This year I have plants that are well established and the flower spikes are tall and brilliant. Cardinal flower grows best in moist to wet soils, so this has been a fabulous year for it!

If you have a shady or partially shaded area that tends to stay moist in your yard, cardinal flower might be a great choice for you. Allow these plants to reseed naturally so you’ll have flowers — and a natural hummingbird feeding station — year after year.

Additional Resources

By Christa K. Carignan, Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center