Looking through garden plant images often leads me to reminiscence about the plants no longer in my garden and what each death has taught me. Many plant species have died at my hands after being planted in unsuitable conditions because my desire to have them overrode some very real limitations in my garden. Take for instance the blue poppy (Meconopsis spp.). They thrive in moist filtered shade where the summers are not too hot. Why would I ever think I would be successful? It was their unusual color ad beauty that made me tempt fate…and reality. My garden is hot and dry, so it was a quick and painful death. As a result, I made a rule for myself “kill three, you ’re out.” You might ask, why three? Was once not enough? For the blue poppy, once was enough; there was no chance it would grow anywhere in my garden, and I should have accepted that from the beginning. But for something like Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica), it can be tricky to find the right spot, but easy to establish if you do. It has made my kill list because I chose a site unwisely on occasion, yet I have several well-established plants in sites where I got it right. If I had killed three in a row without success, I would have stopped there.
Perennial does not always mean long lived
What is harder to get a handle on is the differing longevities of herbaceous perennials. Like dogs, some species are just longer lived than others. Perennial traditionally implies a plant that lives for three or more years, but many gardeners extend that definition or expectation to living a lifetime, effectively forever. Unfortunately, most of our herbaceous garden perennials don’t have the historically long life of the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), though some like peony (Paeonia spp.) are considered long lived and can survive a hundred plus years if provided the right growing conditions. Most gardeners find out the hard way not all perennials are long lived, when after a relatively short period of time the species unexpectedly disappears from the garden. Several notoriously short-lived perennials like blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) can trick you into thinking they are longer lived through successful reseeding but take away the optimal growing conditions and/or disturb reseeding (raking or other soil disturbance around the plant that buried the seed too deeply) and they can disappear from the garden in as little as a year. Cardinal flower easily made my kill list three times just because I don’t have the consistently moist soils it prefers, nor are conditions good for successful reseeding. So, for me, cardinal flower would be a relatively expensive, but stunningly beautiful annual if I so chose to keep it in my garden.
Long lived perennials come back year after year
If you have ever driven past the site of an old farm site, often long-lived herbaceous perennials like iris (Iris spp.), peony, and daffodil (Narcissus spp.) continue to come up long after the house and barns are gone. I tend to favor long-lived plants just through natural work selection pressure. Plants that come back year after year require less work from me in terms of replanting. Those perennials that effectively act like annuals or biennials in my garden usually make it to my kill list three times rather quickly. And without any obvious long-term success like with Indian pinks, they stop being replanted because I have other things I choose to prioritize for time in the garden, like planting other long-lived perennials.
Long-lived perennials are great for building a collection
If I were asked which cultivar in my daffodil collection is my most favorite, this year I would have to pick ‘Sunnyside Up.’ It sports large blooms on stout stems that do not lodge over in wind and rain, and it puts on a display that attracts attention from a distance. Though it might look somewhat like a double daffodil, 'Sunnyside Up' is designated as a split-cupped daffodil following the Royal Horticultural Society’s daffodil classification system. Split-cupped collar daffodils are sometimes called butterfly daffodils because the split sections of the cup (corolla) fold back against the tepals (petals and sepals look the same), reminiscent of spread butterfly wings.