What Is a Perennial?

Curious about the difference between annuals and perennials? Here's what it means to be a perennial plant.

You see the word perennial on plant tags and on garden web sites, but what is a perennial? The meaning of perennial is living for a long time. That’s what perennial plants do. They grow back every year, season after season. You only plant them once, saving money on your garden budget. Someone once said that friends don't let friends plant annuals. That's harsh, but you have to love a plant that needs so little from you.

Unlike annuals, which die each winter and must be replanted each spring, perennials grow back from roots that go dormant in the soil in the winter. Perennials can live as long as 15 years, or in the case of peonies, a human lifetime. Others, like mums, are short-lived, lasting just three or four years.  

Perennials tend to be slower growing than annuals. They generally bloom for a single season, summer, spring or fall. There are everblooming perennials that bloom longer, but perennials are less about flowers than they are longevity. Perennials don’t bloom as much as annuals because they don’t have the same pressure to reproduce. They will be around for years, so they put their energy into growing strong roots instead of growing lots of flowers that will produce lots of seeds. 

Some of the most popular perennials are coneflowers, blanket flowers, hydrangeas, clematis, daylilies, hostas, Siberian iris, delphinium, Veronica, Russian sage, catmint, yarrow, peonies, liriope, baptisia, sedum, Oriental poppies and coreopsis.  

Perennial Plant Pictures

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Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’

A pollinator favorite, ‘Blue Fortune’ agastache offers a long season of interest in the garden with purple flowers that fade, leaving lavender-tinted flowerheads behind.

Photo By: PerennialResource.com

Hemerocallis ‘Happy Returns’

Give your garden a strong summer show with the canary-yellow flowers of ‘Happy Returns’ daylily. This reblooming daylily fills summer scenes with fragrant flowers.

Photo By: PerennialResource.com

Dried Seed Head on Coneflower Plant

Each spike of the cone-shaped head of this echinacea bloom contains a seed that could become a new plant. Left to dry on the plant through fall, it can now be harvested for seed-saving.

Photo By: Bob Farley

Seeds Stored in Spice Jars

Upcycled glass spice jars make good storage containers for harvested seeds that need to be stored indoors. You can make stick-on labels for each saved seed collection.

Photo By: Bob Farley

Seeds Saved in Brown Paper

Storing seeds of all kinds in brown paper helps keep them free of moisture. You can place clipped seed heads in a bag and shake it to separate the seeds from the flowers and stems.

Photo By: Bob Farley

Milkweed Seeds in a Brown Bag

In the case of milkweed seeds, feathery filaments are seemingly braided together. The pod will dry and crack, and the seeds’ plumes unfurl, separate and fly away.

Photo By: Bob Farley

'Gold Heart' Bleeding Heart

Brighten a shady spot with the glowing leaves of 'Gold Heart' bleeding heart.

Photo By: Bailey Nurseries at Baileynurseries.com

Separating Seeds From Seed Pods

Some seeds need to be separated from the flowers or pods by winnowing, or shaking and sifting out the seed.

©Bob Farley

Prairie Blazing Star Stems

Prairie blazing star, Liatris pycnostachya, rises in the garden border in early spring, its tall stems unfurling like dancing cobras. It’s a great plant for a pollinator or wildlife garden and adds texture to plantings.

Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

Perennial Border With Curved Edges

A beautifully designed perennial border features sweeping curves.

Photo By: Preen

Perennials are good choice for gardens because they’re low maintenance plants that tend to be hardy. They don’t need a lot of help from you to survive. Keep them weeded and mulched, deadhead spent flowers and cut them back in the winter and they’ll be back in the spring. Perennials give resilience and consistency to your garden, providing a backbone around which you can plant short-lived flowers. 

How do you grow perennials? You can buy container-grown plants from a nursery and transplant them, or you can buy seeds and sow them directly into the ground.

One of the best things about perennials is they grow bigger and better each year. Once established, perennials reproduce by developing colonies of new plants with their own roots and leaves. Dig up the new plants and transplant them elsewhere in your garden if you want more, give them to friends if you don’t. Some perennials reproduce so quickly they’ll overrun a bed if you don’t dig them out. The process of pulling clumps of perennials apart to create new ones is called dividing. The best time to do this is spring or fall. Dividing perennials keeps them healthy, too, by not letting them crowd themselves out.

Perennials reward each year. Pick varieties that thrive in your climate and get growing.

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