What’s the difference between annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, houseplants, and bulbs?

Looking out across the world of plants is thrilling! There are so many different versions of beauty that it can be hard to choose a favorite and even harder to know what to use in your own space. When you head to the garden center to shop for plants, you’ll come in contact with six main plant types: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, houseplants, and bulbs. Let’s define a few words we’ll use throughout this article and then get to each plant. We’ll describe each one and explain the differences between them so you can better understand what you’d like to grow.

Annual – has a lifespan of one growing season

Perennial – has a lifespan that lasts multiple years

USDA growing zone – a standard metric in gardening that refers to the average coldest temperature in your area, it determines which plants are likely to be successful in your garden (find yours here)

Foliage – leaves

Herbaceous – soft plant material and leaves that die back each year

Evergreen – foliage that stays on the plant year after year

Deciduous – foliage that falls off each autumn

Woody – hard plant material like stems, branches, and trunks

Annuals

There are two types of plants that we refer to as annuals. The “true” annual that grows from a seed, sets seed, and dies all in one year (like a cosmo). And the plants we grow as annuals, but are actually perennials in warmer climates where they survive the winter (like a begonia). Either way, annuals are are known for a robust flower or foliage show because they aren’t spending that much energy building a robust root system. 

Gardeners primarily use annuals as a way to change things up each year in the front of their garden beds, by mailboxes, in container displays, and in hanging baskets.

Perennials

Perennials are herbaceous plants that come back year after year from the same roots when planted in gardens within their USDA hardiness zone range. Each season they grow all of their flowers and foliage, die back to the ground in fall, and emerge again the next spring. There are a few evergreen perennials like hellebores that keep their foliage over the winter, but they’ll still grow new leaves in spring. 

Gardeners use perennials in many different applications – filling in space between shrubs, creating meadows, in container displays, planting en masse to replace typical lawns, and more.

Shrubs

Shrubs have a woody structure and can either have deciduous or evergreen foliage. Shrubs will survive for years when planted in garden within their USDA zone range. They generally take the first growing season to get the bulk of their root system established. Most shrubs do not die back to the ground, the growth emerges on the branches every year. You can tell a plant is woody if you cut across a branch and you see rings like you’d see on a tree stump. In terms of flowers, shrubs can produce flower buds on new or old growth, learn what that means and why it matters in this video

Gardeners generally use shrubs to define the aesthetic of their space or provide noteworthy interest to a planting. Shrubs can be planted in a way that emphasizes the good features of a home, as hedges, in containers, in wildlife areas, and more.

Trees

Trees have a woody base and can be deciduous or evergreen. They differ from shrubs in that they grow taller, generally have a single trunk (although there are exceptions like birches), and have a large space between the ground and the foliage.

Gardeners plant trees to provide shade, emphasize the features of their yard or home, benefit wildlife, and more.

Houseplants

Houseplants generally come from parts of the world that don’t experience frosts. They don’t need to be submitted to the cold to continue to thrive year after year*. In terms of care, some houseplants need high humidity and light, while others adapt easily to the low humidity and low light conditions a home often provides. The tag will help you position it in the right conditions.

People enjoy houseplants as a way to soften indoor spaces, decorate, implement care into a daily routine, and more.

*This is why some plants cannot function as houseplants, they need to experience the natural fluctuations in temperature that an outdoor planting provides.

Bulbs + Corms + Tubers

Bulbs, tubers, and corms can be annuals or perennials depending on how you treat them. There are many bulbs like tulips and daffodils that naturally come back year after year when planted in the ground. There are also bulbs like Amaryllis and tubers like Dahlias that usually need special treatment. If cared for properly, these plants will flower year after year anywhere. The information on the packaging is instrumental to understanding how you’ll care for them.

Gardeners use bulbs in a similar way to annuals and sometimes houseplants. Bulbs offer brilliant seasonal color and dress up container displays.

Now that you know what to expect from each type of plant and how to use them, you can grow your gardening knowledge to even greater heights with these resources:

Read How to Choose the Right Shrub

Read about the 3 Types of Visual Texture in Plants

Read how to How to Create a Four-Season Garden

Written by
Kristina Howley

Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.

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