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Do the terms perennial and annual confuse you? You aren’t alone; many people have trouble keeping them straight.

First point to remember: These are categories we the people made up, and plants frequently refuse to conform to them. Nevertheless, these terms can be helpful.

Technically, annuals are plants that will complete their life cycle in one growing season. In areas that experience hard frosts, plants that are perennial in milder climates are used as, and referred to as, annuals. Technically, a perennial is any plant that lives three years or longer, including trees and shrubs.

In common use, however, what we mostly refer to as perennials are actually herbaceous perennials, meaning they die to the ground each winter. The definition of a perennial I find most helpful is from a horticulture professor at University of Georgia, Allan Armitage. He says a perennial is “any plant that had it lived would have bloomed year after year.”

So to sum up, annuals are one-year wonders; perennials, multiple years. Please clip this out and keep it in your wallet next to the picture of your cat.

Now that you know what perennials are, let’s talk about the very popular echinacea, also known as coneflower. Of particular interest are some of the newer varieties slowly making their way from researchers to a garden center near you.

You might be a plant nerd if ... you fly to Illinois to see a field trial of perennial plants. This is exactly what I did and who I am. This is an industry event hosted by Ball Horticulture at its corporate headquarters near Chicago. It is an opportunity to see several varieties (cultivars) of the same plant grown side by side. I would have liked to see about 100 times as many varieties — but then, I am mentally unstable.

It may take some time for these varieties to show up at your garden center, but put them on your wish list and watch for them. I’ll highlight a few coneflowers, as they were the best represented group.

If you have seen double coneflowers you may have trouble seeing the beautiful flowers because on many varieties the plant will not support the blooms and they often do a face plant into the dirt. This is not the case with Echinacea Double Scoop Cranberry. This coneflower has a much stronger plant and abundant, amazing deep-coral-rose flowers.

Another promising series of coneflowers: Sombreros. The Sombrero Salsa Red has gorgeous tomato-soup red blooms on a well-branched and compact plant. The jury is still out on how well the color will hold up under our strong light, but they have potential. Also included in this series are Hot Coral and two shades of yellow.

The Pow Wow coneflowers have been on the market long enough that you can actually find them, and I recommend that you do. Pow Wow Wild Berry is a beautiful warm magenta, darker than your typical rose coneflower. The improved plant habit and number of blooms make this a definite coneflower 2.0.

Echinaceas are some of the easiest perennials to grow in a sunny location, so make room for more. Start experimenting with coneflower varieties, and you too can become a plant nerd.

After working for years in commercial greenhouses in Idaho and Utah, Susan Harris of Shoshone is a garden designer and garden coach. Reach her at colormygarden@cableone.net.

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