Annuals. One could argue that the
whole life of a plant is geared toward one thing: reproducing. For annual plants, the production of flowers and
seeds is the culmination of their very existence! Soon after annual plants produce mature
seeds, they die, having exhausted themselves from sprouting, growing foliage and flowers,
and finally producing viable seed in just one growing season. The mother plant dies, but
she may have left hundreds, or even thousands, of seeds to carry on her legacy. For annual
plants, one generation per year is the norm, so they have a life cycle of one growing
season. Our bean seed, in the discussion above, is an annual; other common garden annuals
include zinnia, cosmos, and broccoli.
Biennial plants complete their life
cycle over two growing seasons. The first season they grow only foliage, commonly a
low-growing rosette of leaves. The second growing season they form flowers and produce
seeds; then, the mother plant dies. Common biennial flowers include foxgloves and
Canterbury bells. But did you know that cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and
celery are also biennials? We usually harvest them in their first season of vegetative
growth, so we never actually see the flowers.
dont often talk about a perennial
plants life cycle. Rather, you may hear about a particular perennials life span.
For example, you might hear that columbines are relatively short-lived, so you should plan
to replant every few years. Perennial plants continue to grow and flower for more than two
yearsand many will live for decades. However, if we wanted to talk about a
perennials life cycle, we would need to look at how long it takes a
particular plant to cycle from seed to seed.
As with annuals and biennials, perennials produce flowers
that, if successfully pollinated, form seeds. The difference is that the mother plant
doesnt die after producing seed. If we define a life cycle as the time it takes a
plant to go from seed to seed, you can see that perennials life cycles can vary
widely. For many common perennials, completing a life cycle usually takes from two to
perhaps five years. For example, if you plant a coneflower seed, youll get only
foliage the first few years, with flowers and seed coming in subsequent years. If the
first seed is formed the third season, then we would say the plant has a three-year life
cycle, from seed to seed.
The word perennial is commonly used to describe long-lived
herbaceous plantsthose with green, non-woody stems. In temperate regions, most
perennials die back to the ground in the winter, then sprout from the roots or crowns in
the spring. Woody plants like shrubs and trees are also perennials, in that they grow for
many years. However, in common usage a distinction is made between woody and non-woody
perennials. The word perennial is reserved for herbaceous, non-woody plants. Woody plants
whose aboveground parts persist through the winter are categorized as shrubs, trees, or
Some weeds, such as dandelions, can produce more than one
generation in a growing season. Their life cycle may be just a few months. On the other
hand, the agave, or century plant, may need to grow for up to twenty years to accumulate
the energy reserves necessary to produce its twenty- to forty-foot seed stalks. Even more
remarkable, some types of bamboo are thought to have bloom cycles of over 100 years. It
may take them 100 years to bloom, then they wont bloom again for another 100 years.
Of course a life span this long is difficult for scientists to verify.
Just to muddy things up a bit: Many of the plants northern
gardeners grow as annuals are really perennials when grown in their native climates.
Examples include petunias, geraniums, tomatoes, and peppers. And some plants like
hollyhocks are really perennials, but most people treat them as biennials because after
the second season they usually succumb to rust disease.
Now that weve looked at life cycles in general,
lets take a closer look at the details of reproduction.
No Deadheads Allowed!
We all know its important to "deadhead," or remove spent flowers,
from many garden plants to keep them flowering. And to continually pick
"vegetables" like tomatoes and peppers for a longer harvest. But why is this so?
The production of mature, viable seeds on a
plant triggers a chemical signal indicating that the plant has completed its life cycle,
and no longer needs to expend the energy to produce more flowers. By removing flowers
before they form seed heads, or harvesting vegetables before the seeds are fully mature,
we can encourage the plant to produce more flowers and fruit. Because seeds havent
been allowed to mature, the chemical signal is not triggered, and the plant continues to
If you love foxgloves and want to have flowers every year, be sure to sow some
seeds each year. Biennial plants like foxgloves produce foliage the first growing season,
and flowers the second season. By starting some seeds of these and other biennials every
spring, youll ensure that half the plants will be at the flowering stage each year.
(There are, by the way, some foxglove varieties that produce flowers the first season.)