The Key Differences Between Annuals and Perennials

The Key Differences Between Annuals and Perennials

Short Answer: Annual plants complete their life cycle in one growing season, sprout, bloom, produce seeds, and die within a year. Perennials, on the other hand, live for several years. They typically bloom each season after their initial maturation, often going dormant in winter and returning in spring. The key difference lies in their lifespan and blooming patterns: annuals for a single-season burst of color and perennials for recurring blooms year after year.

You’ve probably heard plants described as annuals and perennials in gardening. Knowing the difference between annual vs. perennial plants will help you understand how each type will behave in your garden. Specifically, you’ll understand blooming times and whether the plant will survive through winter.

When deciding between annual vs. perennial plants, both offer pros and cons you’ll want to keep in mind. (There are also biennial plants in the mix.) Then, you can more easily plan a colorful, productive garden that will look gorgeous from spring to fall while making the most of your gardening budget.

What is an annual?

All plants have a life cycle from when a seed sprouts to when the plant dies. When a plant is described as an annual, it grows from seed, blooms, makes more seeds, and dies within a year. You can save seeds for replanting. The baby plants may not look exactly like the parent plant, but that’s part of the fun.

Annuals vs. perennials are relatively inexpensive. They give you much flower power for your money, and many bloom almost constantly until winter. Most are low-maintenance, self-cleaning plants, which means they drop their flowers naturally when the blooms finish. annuals need to be deadheaded to encourage the flowers to keep coming. When annuals die, you only need to pull them up and compost them.

What is a perennial plant?

Perennials live for more than one growing season. Unlike annuals, perennial plants go dormant in the winter and return the following year. Some perennial plants, like peonies, can be long-lived, returning for decades. Different perennial plants bloom at other times of the year so that you might get flowers in the spring, summer, fall, or even winter. However, you usually won’t have flowers throughout the entire growing season. Perennials don’t rebloom as often as annuals, either.

Perennial roots can survive the winter when they’re hardy. However, you may need to mulch or protect them from freezing weather, depending on where you live. Some perennials may need to be dug up and stored. Dahlias, for example, are considered perennials and can remain in the ground in regions with mild winters. But in cold winter areas, the tubers should be lifted and stored where the temperature stays above freezing.

Popular perennials include phlox, poppies, daylilies, Shasta daisies, and coneflowers, but not all are flowering plants. They can be vegetables and herbs like asparagus, rhubarb, mint, parsley, and sweet potatoes. Apples, figs, and blackberries are a few perennial fruits. Unlike herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs are woody with green, flexible stems and few or no woody parts.

What is a biennial?

Biennials finish their life cycle in just two years. They produce foliage the first year, waiting to bloom until the second year. After that, the original plant dies. Biennials include foxgloves, hollyhocks, pansies, sweet William Dianthus, and forget-me-not. Like annuals, some biennials self-sow, so it can seem like they keep returning year after year.

What should I grow: annual vs. perennial

Annuals are the top choice when you’re looking for instant gratification. They grow quickly from seeds or transplants to fill up containers or beds with color. However, you’ll need to replace them every year.

Perennials usually cost more up-front than annuals. But perennials reliably return yearly, making up for their initial cost in the long run. These plants are often tricky or slow to grow from seeds, so most gardeners buy them as small plants or get them from a friend or neighbor dividing them. When your perennial plants mature in a year or two, you can divide them to fill your garden without spending more money.

Mix annuals and perennials in your beds, borders, and containers for a gorgeous garden that will look colorful throughout the growing season. Read plant tags and labels to know when your perennials flower so you can plant them for staggered bloom times. Consider where you put your perennials, too, because they won’t be pulled up and discarded yearly, like annuals.

Annuals will flower almost constantly while perennials go in and out of flower, so you can plant for an ongoing display of different colors, shapes, and textures. If your perennials finish blooming, or even before they start, tuck annuals around them to fill in any gaps. Just be sure to combine plants with the same light and water needs. Shade-loving annual impatiens, for example, won’t last long beside perennial sun-lovers like coneflowers.

Most Popular Flowers & Plants in the USA

RegionPopular FlowersPopular Plants
Northeast (e.g., New York, Massachusetts)Rose, Purple Lilac, Mountain LaurelSugar Maple, American Elm, White Pine
Southeast (e.g., Florida, Georgia)Orange Blossom, Cherokee Rose, Southern MagnoliaLive Oak, Spanish Moss, Saw Palmetto
Midwest (e.g., Ohio, Illinois)Carnation, Violet, Purple ConeflowerBur Oak, Prairie Grasses, Wild Bergamot
Southwest (e.g., Texas, Arizona)Bluebonnet, Saguaro Cactus Flower, Indian PaintbrushJoshua Tree, Agave, Mesquite
West (e.g., California, Washington)California Poppy, Coast Rhododendron, BitterrootGiant Sequoia, Redwood, Manzanita
Rocky Mountain (e.g., Colorado, Montana)Rocky Mountain Columbine, Bitterroot, Indian PaintbrushBlue Spruce, Aspen, Sagebrush
Great Plains (e.g., Kansas, Nebraska)Sunflower, Goldenrod, Purple ConeflowerCottonwood, Bluestem Grasses, Buffalo Grass
Pacific Northwest (e.g., Oregon, Alaska)Oregon Grape, Forget-me-not, Pacific RhododendronDouglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Ferns

This table includes the most popular flowers and plants in the USA by region, which considers a range of botanical species, including native and widely cultivated varieties.

Most Popular Flowers & Plants in Australia

RegionPopular FlowersPopular Plants
New South WalesWaratah, Bottlebrush, Flannel FlowerEucalyptus, Acacia, Banksia
VictoriaCommon Heath, Waxflower, Pink HeathMountain Ash, Silver Wattle, Victorian Blue Gum
QueenslandCooktown Orchid, Golden Penda, Umbrella Tree FlowerMoreton Bay Fig, Macadamia Nut, Queensland Bottle Tree
South AustraliaSturt's Desert Pea, Kangaroo Paw, Eucalyptus BlossomAdelaide Blue Gum, South Australian Blue Gum, Saltbush
Western AustraliaRed and Green Kangaroo Paw, Mangles Kangaroo Paw, Swan River DaisyJarrah, Marri, Karri
TasmaniaTasmanian Blue Gum, Leatherwood Flower, Tasmanian WaratahHuon Pine, Tasmanian Oak, Myrtle Beech
Northern TerritorySturt's Desert Rose, Frangipani, Desert RoseBoab, Gidgee, Spinifex
Australian Capital TerritoryRoyal Bluebell, Australian Daisy, CorreaSnow Gum, River Red Gum, Black Mountain

This table offers a basic overview of popular flowers and plants in each Australian region, focusing on a combination of state flowers, native species, and other characteristic plants. It's important to note that specific species' popularity and prevalence can vary. This table is a simplified representation. Consulting local botanical gardens or regional horticultural societies in Australia would be ideal for more detailed and accurate information.

Charlotte Gammon

By Charlotte Gammon

Meet Charlotte Gammon, our expert and author. She's our true treasure, as she has got 20+ years of experience in gardening, winery and house design. In early 2000s, she worked for magazine and was in charge of the gaardening section. Later on, Charlotte opened her own designer agency and worked as a designer and decorator. We are happy to have Charlotte with us, as she is our good friend. We value her experience and we're sure you will love the articles she created for our blog.