Want Real Confusion? Try Biennials!

Last week I made a reference to biennials followed by the phrase–“don’t even get me started!”

This is a confusing group of plants–weeds included–that sends up foliage in the first year, then flowers in the second year and then usually, but not always, dies. Confused yet?

The reason I say usually but not always is that a true biennial will do exactly as I’ve just described. But some biennials have been crossed with perennials to make them into short-lived perennials so that we can grow them as garden flowers. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be old reliables like peonies or perennial poppies or things that folks find growing long after evidence of homes, gardens and farms have long crumbled into dust. But at least they’ll survive a few years in the garden–and they might set seed and self sow if we gardeners weren’t so meticulous about deadheading and mulching our beds into death every spring!

Let’s take some examples. Something everyone should know is parsley. Parsley makes its great crop of leaves in the first year–that’s what we harvest all season long. If you leave it in the garden, it should over-winter in all but the harshest climates and the next season it will send up flowers that look much like dill or carrot flowers, because that’s the family to which it belongs.

Because I grow so much parsley for my pollinators, occasionally I’ll leave some in the garden and let it flower in the second year. The tiny bees like the flowers. But don’t try eating the leaves. At that point they’re tough and bitter.

I talked about weeds. I’m a weed geek and love identifying them. One of my favorites has always been mullein. It grows in the garden as verbascum and has been crossed with other species from different parts of the world (like the digiplexus I talked about last week to make it a perennial.

Out in the “wild,” so to speak, this thing is a great weed. Different varieties of it can grow up to 8′ tall. Even our relatively ordinary variety, verbascum thaspus, is no shorty, topping out between 4-6.’ Here’s a post I did a few summers ago when I was doing a weed series. In the photos you can see both forms of it, the first year basal rosette, and the second year flower cluster.

Now that it’s been “civilized,” it comes in all sorts of lovely colors: purples, corals, pinks, peaches, white–you get the idea. It makes a lovely garden plant.

Other plants that were once true biennials and have been bred to be garden perennials are foxgloves and hollyhocks. But if you are having problems with these, particularly with foxgloves, it pays to let them go to seed–and not to be too religious about weeding around them early the next year.

I hope that helps clear up some confusion. Always remember–gardeners aren’t born with this knowledge! We have to learn from each other.

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