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So, What Did You Call That Plant Again?

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Categorize and name things – it’s what we humans do. One of the best examples of this can be found with the plants we share our world with. It can be complex and detailed like the scientific binomial naming or it can be as simple as a family calling a plant a name that only they use. But there are some very useful names and categories that everyone can benefit from learning.


An annual plant is one that starts from a seed, reproduces, and dies within twelve months.


A biennial plant is one that sprouts from seed, grows during the first year to gain strength for reproduction and then reproduces the second year and dies within twenty-four months.


A perennial has a life cycle that generally lasts more than two years. Most herbaceous plants reproduce within a few years of starting from seed, but some can take a very long time, sometimes even decades.


An herbaceous plant does not create a woody stem. These are most of the annuals and perennials that we plant and love year to year.


A plant that creates wood above ground that is a perennially growing part of the plant. Woody plants are usually called shrubs and trees. Some woody plants are so small that we would never think to call them a shrub; there are some willows in the artic that are no more than an inch tall.

This list is not inclusive of every useful term, but these are the most common and necessary ones to know. These terms are used in general when referring to a plant; there are always one or two plants, or even a whole population, that decides to break away and do their own thing. Annual bluegrass is a great example of this. While most plants are clearly annual, there are some that behave biennially and perennially. Since most of the plants act as annuals, we use the term that describes most of the plants.

You may have noticed that I do not have listings for shrubs and trees. That is because most people know what they consider to be trees and shrubs. There is no clear defining line between the two, even amongst the experts. I should mention that all of these matter because these terms help us understand how to use plants in the landscape. If you want a lot of color straight through the summer on the same plants, annuals fit the bill best because they only have one summer to do all there reproducing. Of course that means you need to plant every year, or you need to get something that will reliably reseed.

On the other hand, a well-designed landscape using perennials tends to have the color move around the garden and change over time. Both approaches are valuable and can be mixed for some stunning effects together, but one of the first steps needed is to understand the basics of how long a plant will live and what to expect its reproductive strategy will be.

So take some time and look at plant life cycles and figure out what they mean to your garden and your design process. You may find that by knowing how long a plant grows can greatly enrich your gardening experience.


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