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December 17th 2019

Discovering Biennials

Written by
Floret

Biennials are a unique group of plants that produce only leaves the first year, and in the second year they flower, set seed, and die. This group includes sweet William, foxglove, sweet rocket, and other beloved cottage garden favorites.

What makes these varieties such treasures is that they fill the wide gap between the last of the tulips and the first of the hardy annuals in the garden. Also, the more you pick these blooms, the more they flower. They are real spring workhorses.
Biennial starts in fieldStart seeds later than most, at the end of spring, and plant seedlings in the garden at the end of summer. Ideally, plants will have at least 6 to 8 weeks to establish before the first autumn frost.

Once planted, each variety will produce a large clump of foliage before cold weather sets in and then sit dormant through autumn and winter, reawakening to bloom during the later months of spring. Seeds and plants for all these varieties are easy to grow and generally hardy down to 30°F (-1°C).

We will be expanding our range of biennials in the future and would love to know which varieties are your favorites.
Sweet WilliamSweet William: Of all the biennials I grow, these sturdy plants are the most productive in the spring garden. While they aren’t a huge showstopper when it comes to looks, they add nice color and fragrance to mixed bouquets and have an extremely long vase life. They also are easy to grow, hardy, and usually quite healthy even with minimal care.

Harvest when just a few flowers are open on a head. This prevents the blossoms in the garden from getting damaged by rain and will give the stems a 2-week vase life.
Sweet William ‘Super Duplex Mix’, an old-fashioned favorite, is both beautiful and hardworking. Highly fragrant, dense flower heads have a hydrangea-like quality and are perfect for mixed bouquets.

This diverse mix includes a high percentage of double flowers in shades of rich maroon, magenta, rose-pink, blush, and white.
Erin with foxglove in hoophouseFoxglove: There is so much to love about this beautiful and graceful flower. When I was a little girl it was scattered throughout our garden, and I loved watching the hungry bees nestle inside the freckled blooms to gather pollen.

The trick to getting the longest vase life from foxglove is to cut it before the bees find it. When the blooms are pollinated they drop from the stems, so harvest early, when just a few blossoms are open. Expect a vase life of 6 to 8 days if you use flower preservative.

Please note that all parts of foxglove plants are poisonous if ingested. Wear gloves when harvesting and use caution around children and pets.
Foxglove 'Alba'Most foxgloves are varieties of Digitalis purpurea, the wild species. There are many varieties to choose from, but my all-time favorites are ‘Alba’ and ‘Apricot Beauty’.

‘Alba’ (D. purpurea, pictured above) is a cottage garden favorite well-loved by pollinators. The long graceful stems of this towering variety are loaded with creamy buds that open to pure snow white.

Unlike other foxgloves, this variety does not have any freckles inside its bell-shaped blooms. They are fantastic for wedding work and displaying en masse.
Foxglove 'Apricot Beauty'‘Apricot Beauty’ (D. purpurea, pictured above) is an old-fashioned beauty that pumps out masses of towering stems loaded with freckled peachy-apricot blooms for a solid 2 months from late spring to early summer. We often find bumblebees sleeping in the blooms.
Foxglove 'Sutton's Pam'‘Sutton’s Pam’ (D. purpurea) blooms during the same period as ‘Apricot Beauty’. Its stems are smothered in white bell-shaped blooms with striking plum-colored throats. Hummingbirds love this variety!
Foxglove in French bucketsWhile most foxgloves are biennials, two new hybrids, ‘Dalmatian Peach’ and ‘Camelot Cream’, flower the first year from an early sowing of seed and will also produce the second year if left in place.

I discovered ‘Dalmatian Peach’ (pictured above, left) a few years ago and have grown it abundantly ever since. The towering stems boast soft peachy-apricot blooms that glow from the inside out. An excellent addition to bouquets and wedding work, this salmony beauty is a must-have in any cutting garden.

‘Camelot Cream’ (pictured above, right) produces masses of towering stems with creamy, freckled blooms for 2 months from late spring to early summer.
Foxglove 'Cafe Cream'‘Cafe Cream’ (D. lanata, pictured above) is loaded with creamy, hood-like blooms brushed with golden mustard yellow and intricately detailed with chocolate veining.

Dark, upright stems look as if they are covered in miniature lady slipper orchids—the effect is absolutely mesmerizing. This long-lasting cut is perfect for bouquets and flowers later than most of the D. purpurea varieties.
Foxglove 'Excelsior'‘Excelsior’ (pictured above) is a classic, old-fashioned mix of rich purple, lilac, lavender-blush, and white spires with freckled chocolate and white throats. It looks identical to wild foxglove. Stunning in the garden and when arranged en masse.

Foxglove D. obscura 'Sunset'Obscura Sunset’ (D. obscura, pictured above) is a gorgeous, unusual variety. Thin, sturdy dark chocolate-colored stems are covered in rusty red bells with glowing orange-copper throats.

Knee-high plants are on the shorter side, but what they lack in stature they make up for in their versatile coloring. This variety is perfect for flower arranging and is extremely long-lasting.
Sweet RocketSweet Rocket: This cottage garden staple comes in white, violet, or a mix, which occasionally includes a pretty mauve pink. Easy to grow, it’s one of the first flowers in the spring garden not grown from a bulb. Blooms are highly scented and look fantastic in bouquets.

The more you harvest, the more these plants flower. After blooms fade, stems are loaded with pretty seedpods resembling thin, shiny green beans. I like to mix them into bouquets as well.

Note that stems do lengthen a bit in water after harvest, as tulips do, so if you’re using these in bouquets, snug them down a little lower than seems right at first to allow for elongation. Sweet Rocket will look good in the vase for a week or more and needs no special care.
Sweet Rocket 'Pale Lavender'We’ve been growing ‘Pale Lavender’, a hard-to-find variety, for many years, and it’s one of the most beautiful biennials that blooms on our farm each spring. Towering stems are loaded with billowy flowers that are well-loved by pollinators.

This old-fashioned favorite is the palest lavender-mauve with a slightly darker eye. Blooms have a sugary candy scent that lingers in the evening air.
Canterbury Bells in fieldCanterbury bells: It’s easy to see why this classic is still a must-have for any cut flower grower. Both the single and the double varieties produce huge stems loaded with balloon-shaped blooms in white, pink, lavender, and purple.

The plants are quite bulky, so stake them with netting at planting time to keep them upright in heavy spring rains.

Pick when the top bud is colored and just opening. It is not unheard-of for these stems to last 2 weeks in a bouquet.
Money plant in fieldMoney plant: Grown primarily for its beautiful seedpods, this spring treasure thrives in less-than-ideal conditions, including shade and poor soil. Though flowers can be harvested in early spring, the window of bloom is so short that this isn’t a reliable flower crop.

I love to use the seedpods when they’re green; as they age a little on the plant, they take on a purple cast. In addition to the typical white-flowering plant that produces green pods, there is a purple-flowering type that produces darker pods. We plan to add both to our seed inventory in the future.

Each plant produces 20 to 30 long stems that are loaded with seed cases. The pods last for well over a week when fresh and need no special treatment.

The stems of seedpods also can be dried for later use in autumn wreaths and bouquets. To dry, hang freshly cut stems upside down in a warm, dark place for 2 to 3 weeks or until they are firm to the touch.

Be gentle when handling them after they’ve dried because the seedpods are fragile and can fall apart easily.
ColumbineColumbine: Although these are perennials, I have found that treating them as biennials and replanting fresh stock each season means a much greater harvest each spring. Older plants succumb to disease after a year or two, and their self-sown babies aren’t numerous enough for a meaningful crop.

For the longest vase life, cut the flowers early in development, before any begin to drop their petals.

There are many, many varieties to choose from, and almost all are good for cutting. We plan to add all of the following varieties in the future.

The ‘Barlow Series’ is a lovely group of tall, double-flowered plants that often produce 7 to 10 stems each if grown in rich soil. The unusually shaped flowers are about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide with pointed petals, and they don’t carry the spurs typical of columbine blooms.

‘McKana Giant’ resembles the native mountain columbine, with flowers 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide or even larger. They come in blue, red, pink, yellow, and white, with centers white or pale. ‘William Guiness’ is similarly shaped, with dark reddish-purple spurs, outer petals, and center.

The aptly named ‘Tall Double Mix’ produces double flowers in a range of colors on stems up to 4 feet tall (1.2 m).

‘Chocolate Soldier’ is a gorgeous, unusually shaped flower with greenish-white petals and a reddish-brown center. It grows up to about 16 inches (40cm) tall, sufficient for cutting. What makes it exceptional is that it really smells like chocolate.

The highly regarded seed house Jelitto in Germany now carries seed for all of these varieties except ‘Tall Double’ and will ship in packets to the U.S.
Columbine in fieldI would love to hear your experience with this wonderful group of plants. Do you grow biennials or plan to add them to your garden this coming season? If so, what are your favorite varieties, or what new treasures are you adding to your wishlist?

Please note: If you submit a comment and it doesn’t show up right away, sit tight; we have a spam filter that requires we approve most comments before they are published.

Lastly, if you find this information is helpful, I would love it if you would share it with your friends.

 

27 Comments

  1. Chelsey on

    I wonder this same thing about growing foxglove.

    Reply
  2. Lydia on

    I love to grow foxgloves and hollyhocks and this is our first year growing canterbury bells in quantity. I agree with Karen Buss as I would also love to see Floret offer hollyhock.

    Reply
  3. Karen Buss on

    I would love to see hollyhocks offered at Floret.

    Reply
  4. Erin on

    Have you used the foxglove in your market bouquets or just wedding work? If you do, do you ever run into the issue of people/customers concerned about their toxicity around their homes? Also, have you done much work with Hollyhocks, Forget me Nots, Larkspur or Lupine? Thank you for all of your amazing work and info! You and your team are truly a touchstone of wisdom and answers!

    Reply
  5. Sarah on

    I’ve grown Aquilegia (Columbine) Petticoat Pink for the first time this year and its stunning. Love your updates thank you. I’m on my 2nd year of flower farming in UK and really appreciate your shared advice. Would love to know how you get the best vase life from wallflowers.

    Reply
  6. Beverly Soltero on

    I’m growing foxglove Camelot cream and it starting to flower this year! Im super excited! It survived the utah winter so I’m defiantly going to grow it again!

    Reply
  7. Jennifer M Chantz on

    This is so helpful! I’m a new flower farmer florist and I’m now without flowers since the bulbs are done and the annuals aren’t ready yet. I do have columbine blooming, alliums are blooming, bachelor buttons are budding and peonies aren’t ready yet. I need a focal flower now for Mother’s Day! Nothing! I’ve applied for a grant for hoop house but don’t have one yet which would have allowed earlier blooms of peonies, etc. Biennials may be the answer. I’ve just ordered more hellebores and will start a new crop of euphorbia. Hopefully that will help! Ideas are welcome. I took the class last year and loved it! Thanks.

    Reply
  8. Marsha on

    Do you sell flowers to the public (i.e. ordering for Mother’s Day, birthdays, etc..)? I haven’t read or seen anything on your site regarding ordering or selling.

    M. Bass

    Reply
  9. Catie Rowe on

    Hi Erin during lockdown in NZ my picking garden has been a wonderful rescue for the soul, also I have been able to deliver flowers to my friends back door so they can have fun arranging them. Like most countries there are been no fresh flowers available . I so appreciate all your wonderful information as in one season I’ve had a constant supply of flowers to pick for 5 months . Dahlias of course are the absolute stars .
    Thankyou for your generosity and expertise

    Reply
  10. Katie Pence on

    I grow the ones you mention, except I havent yet gotten lunaria to establish here yet. Nepeta seven hills giant is a good perennial- not biennial . Queen Anne’s lace comes back like a biennial here in N California . Feverfew ?
    Thanks for being here ! Katie

    Reply
  11. Beverly on

    We used dried lunaria for my daughter’s wedding-4 foot tall bouquets of stripped pods and individual ones Instead of confetti or rice because we were in a wilderness area.

    Reply
  12. Chrissy Creese on

    We just found some volunteer purple blooming Lunaria on our property in NC this weekend! What a treasure! They are gorgeous. I harvested them and am toting them back to PA to use in some of my Mothers Day bouquets. And you mentioned it grows in less than ideal conditions – these were growing on a pile of roofing shingles where an old shed had fallen apart on the back of the property.

    Reply
  13. mireya ochoa on

    Those daffodils I want to plant I dont remember if I mention That it Will be from seed And how long would it take to flower Thank you

    Reply
  14. mireya ochoa on

    I would like to plant daffodils from seed How long would it be before they flower? Thank you

    Reply
  15. Elena on

    Delphiniums and Hollyhocks are among my favorite biennials. I’ve never grown sweet william or sweet rocket but have grown the rest you’ve listed. Something new to try.

    Reply
  16. Sharon Ranney on

    Thank you for the biennial article! All of your tutorials are so helpful. I want every one of the foxglove varieties! I’m still a little confused about the biennial cycle: first year foliage, second year flowers that set seed. So third year no flowers? Also, do you recommend sowing directly into the garden in late spring, or would germination be more successful in trays? Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge! Looking forward to your TV show!

    Reply
  17. Ainsley on

    Love all of this! Thank you!

    Reply
  18. Karen on

    I love hollyhocks! The old-fashioned ones remind me of my childhood and making dolls from the blossoms. The newer double varieties are beautiful and come in such lovely colors, I want to grow them in the back of my garden. Please consider offering them in the future.

    Reply
  19. Heidi on

    My favorite biennial is the foxglove. I grew them for the first time last year thanks to reading about them in your book. The hummingbirds just love them so it makes it very hard for me to cut them. This year I grew extra, some for me to cut and some for the hummers!

    Reply
  20. Kristine Higdon on

    I love foxgloves and have grown from seed for about 25 years in Des Moines, Iowa .
    I have grown many different varieties. I particularly love the ones with deeply spotted
    throats. I grow Camelot series for their first year blooming and the polka dot petra
    and polka dot polly for bienniel/ perennial. Other favorites are Pam’s choice , and
    both apricot and strawberry biennials. Wonderful in a vase as you say if picked early.
    I look forward to your future seed offerings. Your book Cut flower garden is my
    favorite book on cut flower gardening, my constant companion and inspiration.
    I have new techniques and cultivars through your information. Love the blog.

    Reply
  21. Judy Farling on

    Thank you Erin for your wonderful website- you encourage me to keep gardening ! Foxglove is probably my favorite flower but I do struggle to get mine to reseed. What kind of sun do they like? Should I fertilize them? Usually I have to put in new plants yearly with a few blooming the next year. I’ll try planting seeds this late spring for next year.
    I’m in northern Wi and we get very cold winters, often -10 or more for a few days. Thanks for all your help and excellent information.

    Reply
  22. DahliaLover on

    I’m confused by, “Start seeds later than most, at the end of spring, and plant seedlings in the garden at the end of summer.” Do I start seeds inside in spring? Are seedlings the newly growing plant from the seed I started inside in spring? Sorry. I don’t want to mess this up. Thanks for clarifying.

    Reply
  23. Janet Lee on

    Thank you for all of your articles. I just discovered your website and can’t wait to order seeds. I keep reading and reading because all of your information is detailed yet simple, and right to the point. I also can’t stop looking at the beautiful photography.

    Reply
  24. Jacky Surber on

    Thank you for sharing this information. I’m moving to Zone 7b this spring! Are there any biennials that will overwinter there? 10-0 degrees is the low.

    Reply
  25. Helen MacLean on

    Hello and thanks for your generosity in sharing online. When I worked at a public garden in Halifax, part of my job assignments were two large perennial beds and one greenhouse.
    Because the perennial season in Halifax doesn’t take off until the end of July and our spring ephemerals were finishing, I wanted to introduce biennials for the same reasons you make, Erin.
    I chose one old fashion columbine and Canterbury Bells. Started them in the greenhouse and put them in the perennial beds in the fall. Most visitors knew the columbine but not the Canterbury Bells, which were a huge hit with the gardeners.
    As with my perennials, I would let some of the flowers go to seed and cast those seeds in the bed where the original biennial was planted. To encourage a purpetual show for the coming years.
    I found that if I cut the main stalk of the biennial in the late summer or just after blooming, the plant would sometime shoot up side babies that could also be transplanted out in the fall.

    Reply
  26. Olivia Blacque on

    Thank you for all your advice! We be have a bed of Sweet Rocket and Sweet William which did really well this year – was delighted. After four years of trying , we finally had success with Columbine; was so worth the persistence, the flowers were beautiful! Money plant was a disaster; next year will try again.

    Reply
  27. LINA FLETCHER on

    Wonderful information. Thank you for sharing. I love foxglove, but they don’t necessarily love my drier Colorado garden. I am hoping to revamp a garden on my east side this spring. It’s a little more protected. Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you all!

    Reply

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