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Plants definitely have “minds” of their own. Anyone who has ever planted a garden can attest to this. Whether chosen carefully or at random, plants usually both surprise and dismay. Maybe it is the “human” nomenclature we assign them that they reject. They turn out to have purple flowers when the tag clearly stated they would be blue. Was the color giver color blind? Or was the plant having its way with us? What about when the plant is labeled Dwarf and turns out HUGE? HA HA! How about the one that was to thrive in FULL sun but shriveled when summer’s full blast of heat arrived? Think of all the plants that aren’t up to your winter chill, according to those “human-created” zone charts. Didn’t one of these grow FOREVER in your neighbor’s garden? Can’t you just hear the plants giggling?

Biennials are a little like this. Their human terrorizing tag tells us they grow two years and then die. But how do they grow? Why? If you ask, you will be told they make leaves the first year and set seed and die the second year. The truth is sometimes they behave this way and sometimes not.

Ideally, biennials should be planted in early spring. This allows the plant to make necessary progress on the few leaves it will make in its life. Summer’s heat stifles their growth so they sit and wait for the coolness of early fall when they should grow a few more leaves or the leaves they have get a bit bigger. Since most are very cold hardy, winter is no problem. Spring returns, the dormant crown awakens and produces new leaves at the very base of the plant where all the leaves grow, ALWAYS. As the seed stalk starts shooting up, leaf production declines. By fall our biennial has flowered, set seed and, having completed its cycle, it dies. Most biennials make a lot of seed. So we dutifully save this to start anew.

And, most biennials are started from a seed because they don’t make anything to take a cutting from. Planted in good faith these innocent little seeds sprout, (well, hopefully). It is here the trouble with our manmade definition of biennial begins to taunt us. The question becomes when did it sprout and when did you plant it. The best answer is, as stated above, early spring. Why? Because biennials adhere rigidly to their growth cycle.

But what happens if… After sprouting the seed in early spring, you are invited, on the spur of the moment, to sit second in a vintage auto race from Tibet to Paris? You decide to leave thenm in their little pots until you get back. You find, when you return in late summer, that your Mom took good care of your sprouts, but not much growth occurred. Actually the little guys have leaves that look kind of like shoe leather and you contemplate the compost pile. But, as fall approaches, the weather turns perfect for gardening and you throw caution to the wind and plant them anyway. First year gone, Right? Your brave little plants actually make it through the winter and you expect to, at least, enjoy their flowers and collect fresh seed as they end their second year. HA on two accounts.

First, although some biennials have acceptable looking flowers, don’t expect to run for the camera. Clary Sage is a much photographed biennial with white bell shaped flowers dotted with lilac. However, these flowers are only passable for about three weeks and one plant by itself would hardly be worthwhile as an ornamental. Maybe a field of them would be attractive for a while but with this particular plant it would have to be a field out of town; it has an odor akin to gym shoes that seems to get worse with the increasing acidity of the soil. And this is one of the more attractive biennials. Get the picture.

Second, your plant (now in its second year) is probably going to make leaves as though it were its first year. It just didn’t have much of a life that first year and now it is making up for it. The seed stalk SHOULD follow along the next year. MAYBE!

But let’s say… That after having raced across half the world the summer before, life is looking a little dull this year. So you gallantly rescue a cute, little, white puppy from the neighborhood pound. They warned you he would grow to be a BIG dog but you said that was fine you had the room. Besides, you had never heard of a Great Pyrenees and it reminded you of your time in Asia. But LOOK OUT! This sheep herding dog has enough energy and ingenuity for twenty of you and he ends up not only tugging at your heart strings but tagging along with you everywhere, including the garden. So you weren’t too surprised to see the broken flower/seed stalks on your Silver Sage (your ornamental biennial now in its third year). Those great big paw prints all around told the story. And, after all, this plant was on its way out Right?

HA! HA!Again. Since it did not complete its reproductive cycle, there is a good chance it will grow again next year. So how old is this two year old plant? And, if you cut the flower stalks out again next year it will probably keep growing. Not exactly cut and dried.

Culinary Biennials

Maybe the ultimate joke on us is made by the culinary biennials. These we need to think of as annuals. You know what annuals are, don’t you? They are plants that live and die in the same year. Unless of course you live in the tropics where they are perennial, like tomatoes and basil. UGH! ANYWAY, since for the most part we eat the leaves of these culinary biennials, it is the main flush of leaves, usually made in the first year, that we are after. So every year we need to replant in EARLY SPRING. Those culinary biennials we primarily use the seeds or flowers stalks of, mock us further by not making these usable parts until the second year. So every year we need to replant in EARLY SPRING.

Culinary biennials include Angelica, Caraway and Parsley. Interestingly, these all belong to the same family, Apiacea (formerly umbelliferae). It was not too long ago Parsley was even classified in the same genus, Carum, as Caraway. These, as well as the ornamental and medicinal biennials, are extremely hardy, zones 2 and 3. Most require lots of water and prefer afternoon shade in very hot summer climates.

Angelica has a sweet licorice flavor that has been enjoyed for thousands of years. Candied Angelica is often mentioned in Herb books as a delicacy, however, the preparation seems labor intensive and, perhaps, was more appropriate in a time where sweet treats were harder to come by. Simplicity may be best. Just peel the leaves away from the midrib of the leaf segment or cut young stalks in sections and steam. Older leaves can be dried, ground and added to baked goods. Angelica seeds should always be sown shortly after harvest.

Caraway, Carum carvi, is grown mainly for its seeds. And, it doesn’t make a whole lot of those, about a ¼ cup per plant. Famous for their addition to Rye Bread, they can be used to flavor just about everything. The seeds are best used fresh and added near the end of cooking.

Parsley is probably the most well known Herb. Unfortunately, many view it as something to be removed from the plate and set aside. Restaurants are actually required by law to place something fresh on your plate before serving, to indicate the freshness of the food. Parsley has become the mainstay for this practice. Some of us will actually eat the little morsel at the end of our meal to freshen out breath. It is a good source for vitamin C, iodine, and iron. For cooking, the flat leafed parsley is often preferred. It is also a more suitable parsley to grow in very cold winter areas because its leaves allow water and snow to slide off, instead of being caught in the cups of curled parsley where it can rot or freeze the leaves. Cutting parsley back will encourage new growth.

Ornamental and Medicinal Biennials

Hollyhock, Alcea rosea, was once considered a medicinal Herb with properties similar to marshmallow. With giant flower spikes, it is striking placed among other flowers where the individual flowers may peak at you here and there. Here the leaves are often bug riddled. Planting in summer will sometimes miss the cycle of pests, but flowers will be in spring instead of summer. Cutting the plants almost to the ground after the first bloom will help encourage an additional later bloom.

Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is a medicinal Herb too powerful to be used by all but the professional medical practitioner. It can be fatal if ingested. That said, Foxglove is a winning flower for the cottage garden. Liking a little more shade than the Hollyhock, it, too, has a tall regal spire that appears in its second year.

Gopher Purge has a poisonous sap in its leaves and stems and roots. Unlike the other biennials, it grows upright producing leaves straight out from the one stalk. Gophers and moles do not like it, but, unless what you want to protect is densely surrounded by the Euphorbia, it will not deter them. They must chew through it to get sick or die.

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea) has been used as an eyewash (clear eyes became clary), as an ingredient in muscatel wine and in cigarettes. It can be eaten like sage and the flowers can be used as a garnish. Plant several for a good floral display.

Other ornamental or medicinal biennials include Evening Primrose, Mullein and Moth Mullein.

If snails are a problem in your area, the leaves of all these biennials will need to be protected. A ring of inexpensive copper tubing used for hot water pipes is available at most hardware stores. It can be shaped to fit your garden or the top of a pot. As long as debris is kept off it, snails and slugs will not cross it.

The confusion over biennials will probably continue. Consider this quote from A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve published in 1931. “Angelica may be termed a perennial herbaceous plant. It is biennial only in the botanical sense of that term, that is to say, it is neither annual, nor perennial: the seedlings make but little advance towards maturity within twelve months, whilst old plants die off after seeding once, which event may be at a more distant point than in the second year of growth.

The best way to approach biennials is to plant often and enjoy. As gardening continually teaches us, don’t COUNT on anything.