A garden plant can be identified in several different ways, based on what you know about the plant. Some questions to ask include the following: How long does the plant live? What kind of leaves and structure does the plant have? How does the plant grow?
Annuals, Biennials or Perennials
An annual plant completes its life cycle in one year, from germination to setting seed. Most annuals are planted in the spring, bloom during the summer and fall, and then die in winter. Some annuals are planted in the fall, grow during the winter, and bloom and die in the spring.
A biennial plant lives for two years. The first year, it forms roots, stems and leaves. During its second year, it flowers, fruits, sets seed and dies.
A perennial plant lives three or more years. It may take two or more years from the time of germination to bloom. Short-lived perennials may live only three or four years, while long-lived perennials may live indefinitely.
Herbaceous or Woody
An herbaceous plant has little or no woody (hard) tissue. It usually dies back to the roots each winter and returns in the spring with new growth. A herbaceous plant may not die back in the winter in warmer climates, but may lose some or all of its leaves.
A woody plant has stems and limbs made of wood, such as most trees and shrubs. A tree is a woody perennial with a single main stem called a trunk. A shrub is woody perennial with several stems but little or no trunk.
Deciduous or Evergreen
A deciduous plant loses its foliage at the end of the growing season, usually in fall or winter. Some deciduous plants lose their leaves during the heat of summer. When a plant loses its leaves, it usually goes into a state of dormancy.
An evergreen plant retains its foliage year round. Some evergreen plants have needles instead of leaves. Most evergreen plants are shrubs and trees, but some herbaceous perennials are referred to as evergreen.
Groundcover or Vining Plant
Groundcovers are low-growing spreading plants. The roots of the plants may run underground and send up new growth at intervals, or the plant may have runners that reach out and begin a new plant some distance from the original plant.
Vines are plants that cling or twine around supports to grow vertically on structures, such as trellises, arbors and posts. Vines also grow horizontally along fences or wires.
Some plants may have the attributes of both groundcovers and vines and can be used either way.
Flowering or Foliage Plants
A flowering plant is grown for its flowers, which are large, fragrant or ornamental. Annual flowering plants bloom all season. Herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees usually have a set length of time for flowering.
A foliage plant has no flowers, like a fern, or very small flowers. The foliage is ornamental and usually features texture, such as lacy or hairy. Some foliage plants have very large leaves, thin straplike leaves, delicate fronds or spines. Foliage plants may be all one colour or they may have stripes, splotches or speckles.