Essential Perennials…You Gotta Have It.




essential perennials

Are you ready for another great Garden Rant Giveaway? Now’s your chance!

You could be the lucky winner of Essential Perennials: The Complete Reference to 2700 Perennials for the Home Garden.

Post a comment below and tell us what your favorite perennial is and why you like it. We’ll have the grand drawing next week.

The first line of the introduction to Essential Perennials drew me in: “Any experienced gardener knows that perennials—herbaceous (more or less non-woody) plants that go dormant in the fall and then return in the spring—are the main fabric of an ornamental garden.”

Essential Perennials, co-written by Ruth Rogers Clausen and the Garden Rant’s very own Thomas Christopher, shines a light on perennials—my favorite garden subject.  So I take notice when something useful and well written comes along that spreads the love of perennials. It does not hurt, either, that the photographs by Alan L. Detrick and Linda Detrick are beautiful.

I’ve grown and marketed perennial plants and seeds for 35 years and still refer often to Clausen’s original perennial book, Perennials for American Gardens, co-written with Nicholas H. Eckstrom, and published in 1989.

Essential Perennials includes over 2700 perennials, a bit short of the original perennial book’s 3,000 species and cultivars. The authors could have padded it with a boring recitation of new introductions of hundreds of echinaceas, heucheras, daylilies and hostas, but they didn’t, and for that I am grateful.

Clausen and Christopher suggest a sufficient cultivar list of each of these popular genera. Otherwise, gardeners will sift (as we are wont to do) through the growing pile of new introductions by trial and error or by word of mouth.

Save the book’s handy A-Z list of perennials for later.

Pay close attention first to the small print of Perennial Basics in the opening 18 pages of Essential Perennials. This is the essence of the book, a topnotch primer. Subjects covered with great clarity include nomenclature, plant attributes, ground preparation, shopping for perennials and the big bugaboo: maintenance.

Most successes and failures of perennial gardens will be marked significantly by personal responsibility. (I’m sorry if this sounds like Republican dogma, but it’s true.) Insect and disease calamities and the vicissitudes of regional climates will be a menace, too—it’s just a matter of time. Essential Perennials covers all of this. Clausen and Christopher don’t mention “seasonal fatigue disorder” (garden abandonment in August), yet I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who begins to collapse, in tandem with my garden, in late summer.

I looked critically at Starting from Seeds concerned that the authors might get tripped up. (I am a seed guy and love sowing perennial seeds.) The book provides a good summary. I would only argue that seeds can be started in ground beds or directly in the garden. I don’t bother often with sowing perennial seeds in pots anymore. (Chalk it up to laziness.) On the other hand, I might not get the germination percentages had I fussed over seed trays indoors. Still, generally, what Nature does on its own, gardeners can do, too.

Essential Perennials provides: “…a toolbox of the truly essential perennials…” I appreciate the co-authors’ honesty: “Not all the plants included in this guide are equally exceptional in all categories.”

The number of available perennials has exploded over the last 30 years. It’s tricky terrain to make sense of what’s possible.

There is little that is carefree about a perennial garden, but Essential Perennials will point you in the right direction—toward a home garden that brings years of pleasure.


  1. It looks like a great book and I can always use one more reference to stack up next to the overflowing bookshelves!

  2. I would say my favorite to date is the plumbago. Having a good amount of shade and Colorados sticky clay soil this small slowly spreading gem provides gorgeous blue flowers and red leaves in fall. Their little seed heads even give winter interest! Who could ask for more?

  3. I’d love to have this book. Perhaps it would help me to stop making perennials into annuals. This past winter even killed a butterfly bush!

  4. Epimediums are one of my favorites because they are so consistent and easy in often times difficult areas. The blooms are so delicate and exotic at the same time but you have to look closely. They don’t scream out at you.

  5. I love Baptisia, or false indigo, and the way its pea-like, white or blue or purple flowers return each year in May or June — my favorite time in the garden. Their height (up to 5 feet) makes them perfect along a fence or behind shorter plants in complimentary colors. This year, I’m so excited to plant a hybrid cross called Twilite Prairieblues in my perennial garden.

  6. It is hard to choose. My tiny postage stamp garden is crammed with perennials that grow in shade. Love my epimediums and hellebores. I keep trying hakonechloa grass but maybe it will never work in the spot I want it in the most. Hoping last year’s new native – Indian pink – will return and my trilliums will finally flower.

  7. I love a=Amsonia hubrectii (Common name Arkansas Blue Start) planted in masses. Officially z5-9, it does well in my Northeast PA garden. It’s a great pollinator attractor and turns a lovely golden color in the Fall.

    Also, I second the motion on Epimedium. ‘Cherry Hearts’ is stunning!

  8. I’d love a good reference on perennials. I hope it covers the subtropical areas of the U.S. My favorite perennial is Cordyline fruticosa AKA Hawai’ian ti. It gives me great leaf colors and shapes all year and blooms between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. Easy to propagate, will tolerate almost total shade and is drought resistant after 3 or 4 years. Plus, it’s great in arrangements, cooking and for making lei.

  9. I have a thing for irises, but I’d have to say my favorites are any perennial herbs that I use: chives, thyme, oregano, rosemary in particular. Chives may be my fave–they go in everything, even the flowers. Plus they add visual interest, with their spikes and puff-flowers.

  10. I have 2 favorite…one is the daylily…I love the beauty of them but they have an even deeper love now that my uncle has passed. His favorite were the “jersey” lilies. When we went ro visit him in Kentucky i brougjt a bunch and plantes themnin his yarf so he had a little bit of home.
    My other is the iris..they’re just elegant to me.

  11. I have 2 favorite…one is the daylily…I love the beauty of them but they have an even deeper love now that my uncle has passed. His favorite were the “jersey” lilies. When we went to visit him in Kentucky I brought a bunch and planted them in his yard so he had a little bit of home.
    My other is the iris..they’re just elegant to me.

  12. Peonies – As a child every year they would pop up through a brick patio. We would keep removing bricks so the plant would grow easily and beautifully. Peonies remind me of my childhood and the wonders of plants and the outdoors!

    • Ditto on peonies. They live forever. There were some in our garden when we moved in. I transplanted them as deep as I had found them. About 18″ down. They didn’t bloom for years. I guess the longer they are in one spot the deeper the roots. They had been there over 50 years.

      • You may have planted your peonies too deep . The crowns must be close to the surface- how close depending on your zone. They do not like being transplanted so it takes a couple of years for them to settle.

  13. Favorite perennial – a moving target! But I think last year the contest was between Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) and Orange Butterfly Weed (Esclepias Tuberosa). Bold and butterfly friendly with a long season and especially the Joe Pye is very forgiving of my wet and heavy soil.

    I’d love to discover some new favorites in this wonderful book!

  14. Today my favorite perennial is Euphorbia wulfenii, because that’s what’s blooming. Next week it will likely be something else.

  15. My favorite are peonies, for their scent, the combination of boldness and delicacy in their flowers, and their easy care. Most importantly, though, they were my mother’s favorite flowers. Although she passed away 25 years ago, her peonies still flourish my garden and remind me of her each spring.

  16. My favorite perennial are bleeding hearts because of their delicate flowers, and because there is a variety that is native to the PNW.

  17. Irises, especially the tall bearded ones, because they are beautiful, because they bring back memories of childhood, Mother, and Aunt Mary Beth, and because of the monthly potluck dinner meetings of the local iris society and the wonderful garden tours at the annual American Iris Society convention (in a different location every year–Portland, Oregon, next month!).

  18. My favourite is our pink peony. I don’t know the variety because it was here when we moved in but hope to identify it. I also hope to add some relatives to its environment so it isn’t lonely. Also a huge fan of a deep pink echinacea.

  19. Heuchera! I have a shady garden and have planted 5 different cultivars. So many beautiful colors & textures!

    • To make my list of favorite perennials, they have to be good performers in my garden. This means not being a thug or self seeding excessively.
      Two of the best are peonies and branched bugbane. Bugbane (Cimicifuga though I think the name has been changed) has deep purple foliage and six-eight feet tall flower stems with sprays of fragrant, white flowers. They bloom in late summer and attract bees. It forms a tidy clump and has no pest or disease problems.

      Stay a continent away from Campanula takesimana. It is an aggressive thug that will be with you forever.

  20. Black-eyed Susans – a field full of them along with Queen Anne’s Lace. Did you know that they have to take yellow daisies and dye the center black for the Preakness flower blanket?

  21. Daffodils and dogwoods are my favorite perennials. In our zone 9a garden, they signal the return of spring and tourists.

  22. Liatris! How can you NOT love a a plant nicknamed “blazing star”?? Such a dramatic, bold flower, and I love that they bloom through the heat of summer.

  23. Oh my favorites?! I HAVE to pick? It would have to be a Dahlia coccinea, a true wild dahlia (not a hybrid) from Mexico. But then there’s Salvia clevelandii and Salvia leucophylla x clevelandii ‘Pozo Blue’ and Calandrinia spectabilis and…

  24. The ‘Whirling Butterflies’ Gaura – lovely, low-maintenance garden addition. I love its airy, graceful stems and abundant blooms that look like twirling butterflies. I also like that it blooms continually from late spring until winter.

  25. I’m one of those people whose favorite plant is the one that looks best on that day. Having said that, though, I think my absolute faves are irises and hellebores. And hostas. And ferns. And epimediums. Basically, anything that likes shade. Maybe ‘Essential Perennials’ will help me add to that list.

  26. My favorite perennial is echinacea, mostly because it was the only perennial in my back yard growing up and it’s fun to refer to it as “echidna” instead. This book would help me expand my perennial palette!

  27. I’m still a fan of the old fashioned Honeysuckle here in Florida lovely fragrance, when our local mall was being refurbished they tore them all out, I got a few starts hoping they take

  28. Well, since I have to pick (so hard)… I’d have to then go with:
    Zantedeschia rehmannii (Pink Calla Lilies) =)

  29. It would be a tie between a gallardia and an Iris…both plants were given to me when my mom passed. She was only 49. I was 22. It was the beginning of my healing and 32 years later, I’m still gardening! Now it brings me joy to share with others, my flowers and my story.

  30. I have to go with peonies. But not just any old fashioned floppy grandma varieties. There are so many varieties and some of them are exceptional landscape plants, and if sited right they’ll outlive me!

  31. Salvias. I live in Southern California and they do so well here. They need the absolute minimum of water and attention and they are fragrant and attract hummingbirds and other wildlife.

  32. My all time fan favorite is Hellebore. One of the first to bloom in the spring, blooms last forever, foliage is very attractive and looks great up until about 3 weeks before they start blooming in my zone 7b garden. To top it off, there are now so many beautiful new cultivars!

  33. I’m a very new gardener. We bought our home two years ago and after our first, long winter passed, I knew I need something to look forward to when the next one came. So, when fall rolled around, I let my daughter pick out some spring bulbs. She picked pink and red tulips. These have become my favorite perennial and favorite flower!! As soon as the last snow has melted they are already poking through the ground and when they are in bloom, they just remind me of my beautiful daughter.

  34. I love my Arisaema sikokianum (Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit) — but it’s in its full bloom glory right now, so I am thoroughly in its thrall. (Check back with me in a month and another “essential” might have blotted out the memory of all others!!)

  35. My favorite perennial is Adonis Amurensis because it often flowers in February here in the northeast and it’s like little Suns beaming up from the dark desolate earth! Nothing better to welcome spring:)

  36. My favorite is Liriope. It is happy in sunny or shady locations, looks great in rainy seasons or drought, produces lovely purple flowers in August when few other perennials are blooming, and makes a tidy edge around my gardens.

  37. To ask which is my favorite perennial is the same as to ask which is my favorite child. Each passing week in the garden brings me another to consider. As the snow begins to fall the Helleborus bloom.As the snow melts there is Adonis amurensis, how can we love one more than the other?May brings peony along with lilac followed by roses. How do I choose only one?

  38. That’s like asking for my favorite color or beer or wine! So be it. I have to say I lean heavily towards Catmint, Nepeta fassenii ‘Walkers Low.’ In the South it’s a trooper even with our frustrating Springs- we’ll get early heat waves and then a late cold snap and the catmint just says, “bring it on!” You get a guaranteed fragrant late Spring bloom that’s tough to beat. It stays realtively compact and doesn’t spread like regular mint does. Cut it back in early summer and it performs again until the first real cold snap in Winter. (Zone 7B).

  39. Cranesbills! I can’t get enough of them. Hardy, great form and foliage and blooms to boot.

  40. Salvia “May Night” is my favorite. It blooms for over two months and is hardy in my zone 4 garden. Bees LOVE it.

  41. In my mind’s eye, my long, narrow garden starts at the patio with perennials I’d expect from any catalog or garden center, tender plants that winter indoors, then sequential blooms of highly scented lovelies. At the patio edge are the bird feeders. The scene blends about a third of the way down into naturalized shrubs that bloom or not, and dissolves past the compost/potting area into my local woodlands. A “force field” bans all mosquitoes, but lets in birds and bees and butterflies. I’ve had black and garter snakes and toads to eat slugs, and the local woodpeckers do their job on neighboring oaks and maples. I squash every Japanese Beetle larva I find, and earthworms abound.

    I need this book!

  42. It sounds great, and at the moment, I would take as much info as possible on epimedium and eucomis.

  43. My favorite changes regularly but one of my must haves is Scabiosa butterfly blue. They have such a long bloom period that they’re worth it even though they have a short lifespan.

    Then again, in the fall it’s Mountain Mint – aggressive (mine’s in the hell strip) but a real magnet for native pollinators.

    Heucheras are nice for foliage… I have quite a few of those. And Echinacea (the simple purple ones) and… Oh, you just wanted one? Don’t be ridiculous! I can’t have just one!

  44. This looks like a fantastic book for every gardener’s collection. My favorites are probably the tall blue Delphiniums, but of course I have a favorite for every month of summer. So many great ones, who could pick only one?

  45. Heleniums! What a pity that they are maligned as sneezeweed. They bloom just when much of the summer garden is waning. Lovely en masse or up close and intimate.

  46. My favorite perennial is hosta, but I’ve lost my shade (diseased trees removed) and the constant battle with the deer and rabbits have me searching for a new favorite.

  47. At the moment, I love my only bleeding heart. When we moved into our house 3 years ago, when it came up, I had never seen one before and was awed by its fragility and complexity. Would love to have a shot at getting this book!!

  48. Daffodils mark the beginning of spring here in the MidAtlantic, and there are so many varieties. I could use a good book on perennials as I expand my gardens.

  49. I have two perennials in particular that I love: Boltonia asteroids and Patrinia scabiosifolia. When you have a difficult spot, these two come through and are long lasting to boot.

  50. Wow, pick your fave perennial! That’s almost like asking if one of your children is a favorite: tough choice! I was going to say Arisaema sikokianum but I see that someone has already chosen it. That being the case I would opt for Arisaema fargesii- Farge’s jack-in-the-pulpit. It always shows itself very late which causes me to wonder if it made it through another Winter. Patience is not always my strong suit when it comes to special plants. The giant leaf gives it a wonderful tropical appearance. Fave perennial genus would probably be Carex. I’ve been collecting them for years. Probably the largest genus east of the Mississippi & when you add the many varieties & cultivars from around the world,you have a huge palette of great garden perennials.

  51. Hosta plantaginea and its hybrids, they are a true three season plant … great looking foliage, nice fragrant flowers and fall color. They take our summer heat (south central Kansas) and bloom in mid summer when few other things are in flower.

  52. I have gardened for many years in a Zone 2/3 garden and I loved the phrase, ” there is little that is carefree about a perennial garden”…but there is little in gardening that is so diverse in appearance and pops up to greet you each year (for the most part) despite you having forgotten that you planted it and…what is the name?? as a perennial. There is the challenge of zone pushing, finding the right place for the plant…or as I am often heard to cry out, “what do they want?”. But if I have to pick one….the one when I saw it, I knew was mine, it would have to be the one they call “Astilbe on Steroids”: Persicaria Polymorphous. This is the non invasive Persicaria and I am very excited because I sourced a red/pink variety this winter to join my tall white girls. Here’s to another year of gardening!

  53. It’s really impossible for me to pick just one favorite perennial. I love hellebores, daffodils, peonies, pulmonarias, rudbeckias, … but I could only grow one genus in my garden, it would, without a doubt, be Salvia and one of my very favorites is Salvia reptans which was been hardy in a large ceramic pot for about 6 years now and blooms in my zone 7 garden from August until frost. The hummingbirds adore it and it is such a standout among fall blooming asters and all the yellow rudbeckias, helium’s, etc.

    The new Essential Perennials book you wrote about sound fantastic. I have an old 2 volume set of Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix: Perennials” which I still treasure. Whoever wins will be very lucky!

  54. Difficult choice, but I always love seeing trilliums in the spring. As a child, I would walk the woods with my mother looking for white trilliums, sweet betsy, sessile trilliums and wakerobins. Whenever I see one now, it is always with that same joy as a kid.

  55. I love the return of the tiny bloodroot flower in early spring. They are very fleeting but mean the long winter wait is over.

  56. I’m a new gardener and I have lots to learn but so far I really like Liatris because they’re easy to grow and attract butterflies and bees! Thanks for the chance to win!

  57. Even though a lot of people see them as junky filler plantings down here in Texas, I really do like Lantanas. They bring in the butterflies like crazy and survive through the heat! Zone 8b is not very nice to plants – our summer is hot enough to make some cool weather plants annuals, and our winter is too warm for things like tulips to come back!

    I also love oxblood lillies. So pretty!

  58. I love spring ephemerals. They are my markers that spring has come – very much appreciated this year! At the top of my list are trilliums.

  59. I like the idea of saying what it is today. I’m loving primrose cause they are so beautiful right now and honey berry – like blue berry and service berry but it is gorgeous blooms now.

  60. How could anybody argue that peonies are not one of the most beautiful perennials and one of nature’s great gifts? They are beautiful to look at, make great cut flowers, easy to care for, and have fragrant cultivars if that is what you like. One of my favorite moments every spring is seeing the maroon tips of my beautiful plants poking up through the mulch!

  61. I couldn’t possibly choose just one perennial favorite, but I really love my Hellebores! i love books on perennials and would be delighted to give this one a home.

  62. Hellebores also! Green foliage all winter, even in my zone 5a garden. Flowers way before anything else. I usually have flowers by now, but not this winter!! The snow just melted 3 days ago.

  63. Picking a favorite – that is difficult – because there are so many conditions that need to be filled – sun/shade, soil types, esthetical and thematic considerations…We are starting on a blank canvas with the backdrop of Iowa woodlands, so there are a lot of perennials to start, most of them from seeds. Lots of natives, some non natives that add value of seeds or nectar for the wildlife. Hmmmmm.

    Of course, if I have to take my choice from childhood, it’s either hollyhocks (single, to make hollyhock dolls) or snapdragons (which only sometimes overwinter here.)

  64. I love witch hazel, or peonies and old fashioned bleeding hearts. Right now I am just thrilled to see the snow finally melting!

  65. My favorite perennial? So many to choose from….for so many conditions and purposes….Cimicifuga. Blanket flower. Dianthus. New england aster. Lavender. Creeping mother of thyme. Hens and chicks. Agastache. Leadwort. Hellebore. Must I actually choose just one?

  66. My favorite perennial is heuchera. There are so many varieties to choose from. The foliage is beautiful and I like the flower spikes. Unfortunately slugs also love it in my shaded yard. Last summer they ate every leaf off three plants. I’ll have to be pro active this spring so they won’t be food.

  67. An impossible decision … but there is nothing like a mass of perennial lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) spread like a sea of vivid purple spires.

  68. There are so many great ones to choose from. If I had to name one, though, I’d say herbaceous peony. The flowers are beyond beautiful, and they’re easy to grow. I cannot get enough of them!

  69. I’ll join Diana, Jeremy and Patricia Burrell in the chorus of praise for heuchera, particularly the varieties “Dale’s Strain” and “Caramel”, which embody all the things there are to love about coral bells:
    – They not only look fab all year round but present themselves in a different color every season, almost like having 4 or 5 plants in 1. You get a free bonus gift, too: the flowers are just great both for cutting fresh to add to your vases and for use in dried arrangements.
    – They’re not only incredibly un-fussy to grow (extremely long-lived in nearly any soil or situation, even in dry shade) and unbothered by slugs (sorry, Patricia!), bugs, deer and voles, but also amazingly easy to propagate, then pass along as the perfect little gift for novice gardeners (even the teensiest rosette or bit of live stem scavenged from someone else’s compost heap will readily root – and be sure to keep an eye out for tiny hybrid seedlings sprouting in pavement cracks!)
    – They’re wonderfully versatile, either planted in groups in a border or as elegant potted solitaires or underplanting on either side of an entrance – and yet they’re small enough to be tucked into even the tiniest urban patio garden or low-maintenance window box. They combine with nearly anything and are well-mannered playmates with their neighbors.
    – The rainbow of colors and textures readily available make for extremely high addictive – ehm, “collectability” potential!
    (Sorry for rambling but it’s hard to keep quiet about these amazing plants!)

  70. Loved reading all these comments about favourites. It reminded me of all the plants I have and all the plants I want. We still have a foot of snow covering the garden so my favourite will be the first one I see this long-awaited spring. Thanks for the chance to win the book – it looks like a good one.

  71. My favorite? Perennials, I would agree. I have also grown fond of annuals, biennials, tropicals and woody plants over the years, but perennials were my first love…
    I discovered ‘Perennials for American Gardeners’ as soon as it was published–a year into my career as a horticulturist–and it was a constant companion as I learned my way around gardening and plants. I am looking forward to reading this new book, since one of the great things about gardening is that the learning is never done.
    I hope that a budding new gardener wins this promotion, and it helps to bring another lifelong perennial enthusiast into the fold.

  72. Thank you for this giveaway – this book looks wonderful!

    My favorite perennials — it’s a tie. Tulips, because I love that they are the harbinger of spring ( … in West Central MN, something I look forward to for many months!). I also love coneflowers, and have been planting more and more native prairie plants in my yard.

    Thanks again!

  73. Impossible to pick just one! Today I guess I’ll go with Asclepias tuberosa (Milkweed) which I put in last year to help the monarchs and support our pollinators of all kinds. This book looks like a fantastic resource!

  74. This was a tough choice. I chose Nepeta Walker’s low for its continuous bloom all summer and its rugged nature. I’m constantly dividing and moving them and have never lost a plant even in the driest of conditions. The original plant was a division from my daughter’s garden and now I have so many!

  75. I’ve checked out both the hardcover as well as the online version of Essential Perennials from Metro Nashville Public library My favorite is the white candy tuft (iberus). It’s wintered well despite four single digit weather dips since Christmas. I’m also making cuttings to line a new walkway.

    Hope to win the Book

  76. I’d love so much to win this book and learn even more about perennials for my garden. I love them all. Hostas, Ferns, and Hellebores for the shade, Daylilies, Blackeyed Susans, and Coneflowers in the sun. I love Phlox because it spans the seasons and different species thrive in both sun and shade from early spring to late fall. And, I love perennial vines such as Bignonia, Honeysuckle, and Clematis because they remind me to look up. However, I think my favorites are those that bloom when just about everything else is still sleeping in the spring or already finished for the year.

    Hellebores bloom before even the first Crocus and Daffodils. They’re a sign that Winter is on the way out. Conversely, I love Tricyrtis (Toad Lilies) because they bloom in the fall and add beautiful orchid-like flowers to my tired garden leaving only two or three months without something blooming in my zone 8 garden.

  77. My favorites are irises, roses, and red hot pokers. Remind me of my mom and dad. And snowdrops, and astilbe, and buddleia, and bee balm, and pineapple sage, and …

  78. Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ is one of my absolute favorites. Gorgeous foliage, blooms last and last, and it’s generous with seedlings (but not invasive).

  79. My favorite perennial is the herb valerian. Self propogates in my climate, flowers smell good, root a useful sleep aid.

  80. Heuchera and Liriope have got to be my favorite. We are starting a new garden in a new state so we are exploring new perennials for our yard.

  81. I love reading through the comments. I have such a case of “got to have one of every plant” that I feel like I’m walking through my yard as I read! I guess for the moment my favorite perennial is my bleeding heart because it is in full bloom and magnificent!

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