The UK climate is the source of much conversation and, depending on where you live, consternation.
“It’s always blimmin’ raining!” is a common refrain in Manchester, for example. Or our continued confusion when warm weather extends into October (“it’s unusual for the time of year, isn’t it!”) And oh how we all love to rejoice the second the first warm rays of summer sunshine hit our pale, wintered skin.
Now imagine being a plant. Imagine having to put up with these atmospheric shenanigans. Cold one moment, hot the next, months worth of rain in an afternoon, then long stretches of no rain at all.
How would you manage?
In this article, we’ve rounded up seven hardy perennials that would answer such a question with “I’d manage just fine, thank you very much.” These plants are well-suited to the UK climate which, even though we love to grumble about it, really isn’t as bad as some other parts of the world.
Each plant in this list will make a pleasant visual contribution to your garden, and they won’t require too much in the way of maintenance.
First, though –
What are perennials?
In case you’re unclear on the definition, or if you’ve stumbled across this article by mistake and are still deciding whether to stick around, let us quickly define perennials.
Perennials are not trees, bulbs, or shrubs. Their name refers to the fact that they’ll come back year after year, as opposed to annuals and biennials. And the name is commonly used to distinguish perennials from woody growth like trees and shrubs which, while technically perennial in their growth habits, are considered to be in a category of their own for gardening purposes.
There are two broad buckets that perennials fall into: Those which are evergreen or semi-evergreen, and those which die back in the winter. The latter are referred to as herbaceous perennials.
Now we’ve got that out of the way…
Here are the top seven hardy perennials suited to the UK climate
For this list, we’ve chosen plants that are rated at least H5 on the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) hardiness scale. These plants can comfortably handle temperatures below minus ten, so should stand in good stead to take whatever the UK weather throws at them.
Each plant in the list is also a recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, designating them as particularly suitable for growth in UK conditions. And what’s more, each plant is renowned for being especially attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
Choose next season’s plants from this list, and your garden will be a medley of colour and life by the time spring rolls round!
1. Foxglove ‘Camelot Rose’
This short-lived perennial will stick around for a few years if treated well, and will bring its undeniable aesthetic to your garden for the duration. Foxglove’s tall, proud stems soar into the air, replete with multiple purple bell-shaped flowers.
In the spring and summer, it’s rare that you’ll find your foxglove bee-free. They absolutely love it, and the high number of flowers provide a plentiful supply of tasty pollen.
One thing to note when growing foxglove is that the entire plant is toxic. Take very special care when handling it, ideally wearing special gloves for the task to make sure you don’t accidentally ingest any.
In terms of growing conditions, foxglove thrives in partial shade. It can tolerate any aspect, and isn’t fussy in terms of exposure. Try to find a spot with loamy or sandy soil, and ensure it can drain well. Avoid alkali soil where possible.
Once it reaches full size, your foxglove should reach heights of around 1 to 1.5 metres, with a spread of about half a metre.
2. Geranium subcaulescens / grey cranesbill ‘Splendens’
This cheery purple fellow can be annual, biennial, or perennial, depending on the variety. Splendens falls into the latter category, bringing a recurring burst of purple to your garden in spring and summer. If you’ve opted to grow foxglove, the two would look very nice alongside each other!
The Splendens variety is a mat forming plant, meaning it hangs fairly low to the ground. Many gardeners like to use mat forming perennials to provide visual interest on the low levels of flowerbeds. A splash of colour near the ground can do wonders in highlighting the other colours above.
Splendens likes full sun or partial shade, and like foxglove, isn’t fussy about aspect or exposure. It’s a bit more forgiving with soil types, too, tolerating chalk and clay alongside foxglove’s loam and sand. Soil acidity isn’t something to worry about, either.
At full height your splendens won’t surpass 10cm or so, thanks to its mat forming tendencies. It will spread out to a range of about half a metre, meaning you can enjoy it without having to worry about it engulfing nearby plants or paths.
3. Aurinia saxatilis / gold basket
This lovely plant provides a bright burst of yellow when it blooms, so watch out growing it in a bed with just foxglove and splendens, unless you’re deliberately going for a UKIP theme.
Bad jokes aside, however, this plant really is something to behold. Is 4-petalled flowers bring a special vibrancy to any garden, working well by themselves, or incorporated into a wider floral display.
At a maximum height of around half a metre, gold basket provides its visual interest a little bit higher than Geranium subcaulescens. And unlike the previous two plants, this one requires full sun, is fussy about aspect (south- or east-facing only), and prefers exposure to shelter.
Try to avoid clay soil, and make sure the soil can drain well to keep this plant in optimal condition.
4. Coreopsis verticillata / tickseed ‘Grandiflora’
Here’s another fantastic eruption of yellow, this time boasting bushels of daisy-like flowers. As a clump-forming perennial, Grandiflora brings something quite visually different from the others in this list – perfect if you’re looking to mix things up a little.
This jolly customer will do well in full sun or partial shade, and will be happy with any aspect. It’s OK exposed or in shelter, and is only averse to clayey soil.
Over the five or so years it takes to get to full height, Grandiflora will bless your garden with its yellow bloom every summer and autumn, retaining its visual interest later in the season than some other plants.
5. Erigeron karvinskianus / Mexican fleabane
As the name suggests, this white mat-forming perennial hails originally from Mexico and neighbouring South American countries. Now firmly settled in the UK, however, it grants British gardeners with dense white floral mats in the summer months. (You may also see tints of purple and pink in the mix, if you’re lucky.)
Now, for transparency’s sake we thought we’d include a picture of this plant, as it doesn’t marry up to everyone’s expectations. While it can look a little scruffy (some might even say ‘weedy’), rest assured that Mexican fleabane is an attractive addition to any garden.
It’s versatile, too: As a mat-forming plant it shares the same appeal as Geranium Splendens, and as a blanket of white, it’s a beautiful backdrop for almost any other colour.
This plant loves full sun in a sheltered spot, and likes any aspect except north-facing. Avoid clay soil, and take special care that the soil can definitely drain well. Treat it right, and Mexican fleabane will reward you with a lovely white floral mat about a metre square in size.
6. Aster alpinus / Alpine aster
We’ve had purple, pink, yellow, and white. Now, how about violet? The enchanting flowers of the Alpine aster come in a gentle shade of violet that effortlessly invites your gaze, and the bold yellow centres make the whole thing pop.
This herbaceous clump-forming perennial hails from the Alps and Pyrenees – two vast and wild mountain ranges – meaning it definitely has the hardiness credentials required to manage through a British winter.
Plant your Alpine aster in full sun, anywhere except a north-facing aspect, and avoid soil with too much clay. Make sure it can drain well, and enjoy the gentle bloom!
7. Verbascum epixanthinum / Yellow mullein
Take care when trying to say this plant’s full name in front of your friends, as it’s quite likely they’ll think you’re speaking to them in tongues, and may intervene.
Tongue-twisting name aside, this is an intriguing and striking short-lived perennial. Similarly to foxglove, the flowers cluster densely around an erect stem that reaches far into the air. Where foxglove brings purple and pink flowers, though, the Yellow mullein brings… Yellow ones.
Grow it somewhere in full sun, nicely sheltered, and with a south-facing aspect, and Yellow mullein will reward you with fantastic bright yellow blooms every summer. At a maximum height and spread of about one metre, the plant takes up a nice bit of space in flower beds, acting as a great centrepiece for other blooms.
We’d include more, but there’s hardy enough space..!
The seven flowers above are, in our opinion, a fine cross section of what to expect from hardy perennials in the UK. There may be some names missing that you expected to see, but this was partly deliberate (what better way to get acquainted with some new flowers?), and partly due to the sheer volume of hardy perennials available.
The RHS plant finder, for instance, lists over 1000 perennials with hardiness rating of H5 or over. So, if you didn’t find anything in this list to your liking, don’t despair! There are literally thousands of options to choose from.
And whatever you go for, we hope the weather at least holds out long enough for you to get your new hardy perennials in the ground!