Understanding The Different Plant Types

Yes, we agree, it can be quite confusing with all the different names. There is a LOT of information about plant types. Many botanical books – textbooks and tomes, even – have been written about each one. We’re not about to go into much detail here, though. Just a few lines about each kind, and how to recognise it in the garden.

Bulbs and Corms

These structures are a special case, so let’s talk about them first. They look fairly unassuming, just simple shapes that you drop into a hole in the ground. Very easy to plant. Not too deep, however, and make sure of drainage. Ah, but then… they bide their time, resting underground in the dark, waiting for just the right conditions. You may even forget about them. And one day, over your morning tea or coffee, you spy some little green spikes of leaves poking up from the ground.

Different plant types key concepts plant names gardening

From that beginning, it doesn’t take long for the glories of Crocus, Daffodils, Tulips, and Hyacinth to burst forth. What a welcome, after a long, cold winter! Unfortunately, the blossoms don’t last more than a week or so. But there are so many varieties of bulbs that it’s easy to plan flowering for early spring, mid-spring, and late spring to early summer. In addition, Dahlias, Cannas and Gladioli will put on a show all summer long. You can look forward to a fiesta of cut flowers! 

Yet another bonus is the tendency of Bulbs and Corms to ‘naturalise’. They produce tiny new replicas of themselves that look something like warts at first. After a few months, roots sprout and another whole plant begins to grow, right next to its parent. You can let them spread in this manner, or lift your bed of bulbs and replant the new ones. 

purple hyacinth flower


There are two kinds of Annuals, Half-Hardy and Hardy. Those of you who are fans of old movies may be amused at thinking of Half-Hardy as Laurel. But, I digress. Besides, Laurel is a tree and not an Annual at all.

Half-Hardy Annuals last only for a season, then must be replanted for their next show. Summer plants succumb to the first frost (Ageratum, Gazania, Geranium, Petunia, Tomato) while others perish in summer heat (Pansies, Alyssum, Flowering Cabbage, Broccoli).

Pansy flowers

Hardy Annuals, on the other hand, may act like Perennials. They flourish during the season, set seed and die off over the winter. Then in the spring, the seeds germinate and start the cycle again (Marigold, Poppy, Nigella, Cornflower, Dill). If you like, collect the seeds and start them yourself to get new plants ready earlier. Or let the seeds fall where they may, for a drift effect when next season’s flowers appear. Remember that those tiny seedlings that emerge aren’t all weeds, though. A little labelled ice lolly stick in the ground to remind you might be a good idea. It’s also a good excuse to treat yourself to an ice.

red poppy flower


These plants have a life cycle of two years. During year one they concentrate on developing a good root system and a nice crown of leaves to carry on photosynthesis. They go dormant over the winter. In the second year, they produce flowers. Examples: Canterbury Bells, Hollyhock, Foxglove, Dianthus. 

Can we ensure flowers year-round by alternating the plantings? For instance, let Dianthus or Foxglove grow the first season, then the next year install new plants alongside the others that will be flowering. Or will new Biennials adapt to the rhythm of the existing ones? Let’s try it and see what happens!

Purple foxglove


There is some debate about the merits of Perennials vs Annuals. If you want a more colourful show, choose Annuals. However, they must be replaced every year. Theoretically, you plant a Perennial once and let it do its thing. Usually, a Perennial planted as a ‘start’ will flower the first year, go dormant over the winter, and regrow in the spring from the same root system. Set it and forget it, year after year. Examples: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea), Black-Eyed Susan, Hosta, Shasta Daisy.

Purple coneflower

Perennials sown as seeds, however, spend their first year growing leaves and roots and will not bloom until the second year. Thereafter, they will normally produce flowers every year.

Depending on local climate and regional growing conditions, a plant can behave as an Annual or as a Perennial. For instance, an Echinacea grown in a warmer climate with a longer growing season might behave as an Annual. It grows faster and exhausts itself. But in a colder zone, Scotland perhaps, it would act as a Perennial. Without such a long growing season, it won’t expend all of its energy making flowers and seeds.

Vines and Climbers

Climbing plants that require support (Lipstick Vine, Bittersweet, Ivy, Lianas, Clematis, some Honeysuckles, Melons), vines seem to make their own rules. The main growing tip will keep pushing forward or up for as long as the growing season lasts. Most vines will also branch, and the tips of the branches are as adventurous as the end of the main stem.

Grapes are vines. They are easily trained to grow along sturdy cables strung between solid posts. Keep them low enough that you can harvest the ripe fruit, and prune the vines to curb their desire to get out of hand.

grapes on vineyard grapevine

Vines are mostly perennials, so if you don’t want a particular kind of vine to reappear each year, move on to another type of plant. Or install it in a pot on your patio, in front of a trellis.There are some beautiful climbers that can be trained to grow on walls, to beautify buildings. 

ivy climber

Herbaceous vs Woody

Most garden flowers and vegetables are herbaceous, meaning that their stems and branches stay green throughout the growing season. Those structures don’t get hard because they don’t need to provide more support for leaves, flowers and fruit if any. When we begin to look at plants that persist through the years, that’s when branches and stems become woody. Starting with shrubs, all the way to trees, harder woody support systems are necessary because of the life cycles of each kind of plant. They will go dormant in winter, but they don’t die back all the way to the roots.

Shrubs aka Bushes

Usually woody plants, shrubs have these defining characteristics:• Several stems, sometimes many• No really dominant stem (aka, leader)• Usually less than 3m (10ft) tall

Easily recognisable shrubs include Camellia, Holly, Juniper, Ligustrum and Loropetalum. Some shrubs have a wide range of sizes. The most common landscape specimens of Camellia, for example, can be found small (1m or less), medium (3m or so) and large (6m and up). It’s not easy to tell which is which, by looking at a single plant in a nursery pot. Know where you want to install a shrub. Get professional advice from a nurseryman about which variety will be best. Then, and only then, make your purchase. Camellias, for example, don’t like to be moved from an improper location.

Bushes, on the other hand, tend to be smaller shrubs, with more stems. Argue semantics if you wish. Is that plant a large bush or a small shrub? Boxwood, Burford Holly, Forsythia, Roses and Spiraea are common bushes found in landscapes. Normally a bush will be pruned more often than a shrub. 

Rose bush

Shrubs and bushes are used extensively for topiary, with breathtakingly gorgeous (or amusing) results. Their tendency to branch with hard pruning lends itself to the most impossible shapes – globes, cones, even animals. Browse through some famous topiary gardens and get some ideas!

Evergreen vs Deciduous

One important requirement for topiary is that the bush or shrub should be evergreen. That means that the plant will keep its leaves year-round. Boxwood is employed for topiary because it does stay green. However, if you don’t mind an occasional shaped deciduous bush looking like a twine ball in winter, we say, go for it!

Evergreen landscape plants include Holly, Boxwood, Ligustrum, Camellia, Rhododendron, some Azaleas and of course, the needle-bearing plants – Yew, False Cypress, Juniper, Hemlock, Spruce, et cetera. Some vines are evergreen (Creeping Fig, Star Jasmine, Cape Honeysuckle). Also, Hellebore leaves stay green, plus the plants flower in winter. 

Pink azalea flowers

There are some nice ground covers that stay green all year long, then produce flowers in the spring and/or summer. Vinca minor, aka Periwinkle, is one. Liriope (Lilyturf) is another, although it tends to get shaggy by the time winter is over. Take a lawnmower to it, and it will respond with vigorous new growth.

I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a Tree.

There are so many, many trees! Surely there’s one just perfect for your yard. In fact, there are probably at least fifty that would do. But it all depends on where you want it to live. Of course,you’ve considered your general climate, then your geographical location. Do you prefer for your tree to be green all year, or are you okay with raking leaves in the fall? How much room will it need in order to grow properly? And keep in mind that the roots could grow to interfere with your water line in a few years.

A beautiful, healthy tree or three will do wonders to increase your property value. Shade in the hot summer will be greatly appreciated. A winter wind break can help with your heating bills. Trees provide a home for nesting birds, which are lovely and interesting to watch. The right branch on a sturdy tree is the perfect place for a swing. Suspend a hammock between trees and watch the treetops.

Take your time, consult with an arborist. Measure twice, plant once.