What is an annual, anyway?
It’s the perennial question: Which plants come back every year, and which ones go the way of the dodo when the first frosts come along?
The simple answer: If you have to plant it every year, it’s an annual. If it comes back every year, it’s aperennial.
But…it’s not 100% that simple. I remember a friend asking me if an ornamental grass she’d planted was an annual or a perennial. “It’s an annual here,” I said. Purple fountain grass is cold-hardy only to about 20 degrees or so; so it might be perennial in Florida, but it’s a de facto annual here. It’ll die if the mercury dips below 20.
She was deeply annoyed. “Why didn’t the tag say ‘annual’?” she said, irritated that she’d spent money on a single-season plant. In a sense, it did say so. In the cold hardiness section, the tag read “20 deg. F.” In plant geek code, that means “I am an annual here,” because in Nashville, it gets colder than 20 degrees pretty much every winter.
If you have to plant it every year, it’s an annual. If it comes back every year, it’s a perennial.
Cold hardiness isn’t your only concern as you read the hardiness zone tags. Be sure you also need to know how much heat a plant can take. Certain lilacs might be hardy to minus 20 or more, which is why they thrive in Russia. But can they manage 100 deg. F? Generally, “нет” (no); although there’s an exception: Miss Kim is a lilac cultivar that can take the heat. And it’s named after me, so of course, I have 6 of them.
When I was learning to garden, I remember asking Mom a million times, “I forgot again — which ones come back every year?”
“Perennials,” she would say, never once rolling her eyes — a credit to maternal patience.
Since then, Mom and I have planted thousands of annuals and perennials together; the terminology finally stuck.
In fact, the word “annual” has made its way into our family lore: We have a yearly tradition we call the “Annual ‘Annual Day’”, usually around one minute after tax day — the standard benchmark date in Nashville’s planting zone after which it’s unlikely to frost again and, thus, OK to plant warm-season annuals.
The annual Annual Day is a plant geek extravaganza. We have a marvelous time, stuffing the car with a mad profusion of flowers and foliage, plotting color schemes and combinations, grabbing a milkshake along the way to fuel our endeavors. It generally takes 2-3 days to “install” everything we’ve bought into the 30+ containers I have scattered around the yard — disused fountains, hanging baskets, window boxes, tired pots of all sizes that we’ve recycled and repainted. We usually plant succulents in a few of these, but the rest demand a palate of brilliant annuals.
Every year, we simplify, decreasing variety to maximize effect — a single sweep of deep purple and pale green pleases me more than a smattering of everything. Here’s what the pot garden looked like in July of last year:
We stick with a few simple favorites: pink impatiens and caladiums in shade pots, Persian shield and pale green potato vine in part-sun pots, brilliant coleus in the full beat of sunshine.
The Persian shield-potato vine combination has become our hands-down favorite. Persian shield,Strobilanthes dyerianus. The scientific name brings to mind some fallen Spartan defender of Thermopylae; and the common name just reinforces my imaginings in that regard — a final defense against Xerxes’s hordes, a stately royal-purple weapon of last resort.
The plant is a stunner, and I cannot fathom why it’s so difficult to find in garden stores: Deep purple leaf veined with olive green and silver, and it looks regal paired with pale green potato vine—Ipomoea, another name evocative of the ancients. Our hero Stobilanthes’ wan lover perhaps? I imagine a tragic storyline for poor Ipomoea, a fair maiden rendered even lovelier by grief; mourning becomes her.
But I digress.
At Franklin Flower Basket, we can supply the raw materials for all manner of mother-daughter plant geekery: Persian Shield and potato vine, dichondra ‘silver falls’ and petunias, Boston ferns and impatiens. If you don’t see what you’re craving, ask us — we may have bought it all ourselves already and planted it in our yard.
Don’t worry: They make more. And it’s on the way.