Perennial, But Just Barely

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Gaillardia or blanket flower (Gaillardia × grandiflora) is beautiful and long-blooming, but rarely lives more than 2 or 3 years. Photo: F. D. Richards, flickr.com

If you’re tearing out your annuals because they bloom only once and replacing them with perennials “because they live forever,” you may be making a mistake. Perennials (planted in appropriate conditions, of course) do live longer than annuals (1 year) and biennials (2 years), but not always that much longer. Some perennials live only 2 or 3 years, others twice that, others a little more, but very few will still be around in 40 years! If I had to estimate the average lifespan of a perennial, I would say 7-8 years. 

This is much better than an annual, but you must still be ready to replace perennials from time to time: for the most part, they are not as long-lived as woody plants (trees, shrubs and conifers), most of which will probably outlive the person who planted them.

Short-lived Perennials

The columbine (Aquilegia) is an example of a short-lived perennial. Photo: plantsam.com

There is a particular group of perennials gardeners call short-lived perennials. They’re not exactly biennial, as the latter are monocarpic: they only bloom once (the second year), then die. Short-lived perennials have the ability to bloom more than once, and are often quick to bloom. They then flower a second year to prove they’re not annuals, but often die after that. The third year remains a question mark and as for the fourth … forget it!

The problem for the novice gardener is that they don’t come with an “I’m beautiful but short-lived” label. When a “perennial” disappears after only 2 or 3 years, the disappointed gardener feels guilty and wonders what they did wrong. Yet disappearing after 2 or 3 years is normal for these plants: it’s not your fault.

When you know in advance that a perennial is short-lived, you can take precautions to prolong its existence. For example, taking cuttings or divisions or multiplying it by seed. If you do this every two years, your short-lived perennial can return year after year.

Renewed Life Through Self-Sowing

Mauves (Malva spp.) are short-lived, but generally maintain themselves through self-sowing. Photo: plantsam.com

Many of these short-lived perennials redeem themselves, at least partly, by reseeding spontaneously. Okay, they don’t grow back exactly where you wanted them, but if you are open to the concept of an English-style mixed border, where plants mingle freely, you may come to find these ephemeral beauties quite interesting. And what a joy they can be for the laidback gardener: they require no care whatsoever, showing up here and there as if by magic!

Although they may not live forever, short-lived perennials still have an advantage over their long-lived cousins: they generally bloom profusely the first year you plant them (many indeed will even bloom the first year from seed if you sow them indoors in early spring), which is certainly not the case of most long-lived perennials, most of which take at least 3 years before giving their best show.

A Few Short-lived Perennials

Lupins (Lupinus × russellii) are beautiful and self-sow in many climates, as seen here, but individual plants are short-lived. Photo: alchetron.com

Here is a list of perennials that are generally short-lived. Those marked with an asterisk (*) tend nevertheless to come back year after year by self-sowing.

  1. Agastache (Agastache spp.) (some species self-sow*)
  2. Baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata)
  3. Blue vervain (Verbena hastata)*
  4. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrhynchium angustifolium)*
  5. Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia trilobata)*
  6. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  7. Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)*
  8. Coral bells or heuchera (Heuchera spp.) (some cultivars are short-lived)
  9. Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis)*
  10. Delphinium (Delphinium spp.) (longer lived in cool climates)
  11. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) (some cultivars are short-lived)
  12. English daisy (Bellis perennis)
  13. Gaillardia or blanket flower (Gaillardia × grandiflora)
  14. Garden mum (Chrysanthemum × morifolium) (some newer cultivars are long-lived)
  15. Gloriosa daisy or black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)*
  16. Hybrid tulip (Tulipa spp.)
  17. Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule)
  18. Knautia (Knautia spp.)*
  19. Lupine (Lupinus × russellii)*
  20. Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica)*
  21. Mauve (Malva spp.)*
  22. Orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)*
  23. Painted daisy (Tanacetum coccineum)
  24. Perennial flax (Linum perenne)*
  25. Perennial wallflower (Erysimum linifolium and others)
  26. Pincushion flower (Scabiosa spp.)
  27. Pinks (Dianthus spp.) (some species self-sow*)
  28. Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria)*
  29. Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum) (‘Becky’ is long-lived)
  30. Tickseed (Coreopsis grandiflora)*
  31. White corydalis (Corydalis ochroleuca, now Pseudofumaria alba)*

Adapted from an article originally published on July 11, 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Perennial, But Just Barely

  1. Interesting post. I would add to that list the perennial wallflower, also pretty short lived. I think lupins at least in my garden last years but flower slightly less each year. I’ve also got a knautia that gets bigger each year.

  2. JohnMatthews

    I kept the list but added Dianthus, cleome (spider flower). Raspberry parfait came back seven years in the same window box. Cleomes fessed every year without fail.

  3. Christine Lemieux

    I am a seasoned gardener but didn’t know about this “list”, except from experience. I tried a number of Gaillardia in my younger days. As you said, I felt guilty! A few years back, I wondered why Agastache only lasted a few years! I am now prepared for the loss of some Cardinal flowers as they are two years old! I think I will plant some Gaillardia next year! Thanks!

  4. Those dang kangaroo paw are supposed to bee as ‘sustainable’ as lily-of-the-Nile, but last only a few years. They can certainly be sustainable, but must be dug, groomed and plugged back in. I would not mind doing all that, but it would be nice if we all knew that it was necessary before planting them.

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