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Penstemons: Colorful Western Perennials for the North State Garden

PHOTO: Foothills penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus) in vigorous summer bloom in a low-water Chico home garden.

Some people call them beardtongue – the visual image of which always made me laugh as a girl. Now – as an adult gardener whose criteria for garden plants include: provide color, attract insects and birds, low maintenance, low water and not too fussy, the various Penstemon that make a home in my garden make me happy for a whole handful of reasons.

PHOTO: Foothills penstemon ‘Margarita BOP'(P. h. ‘Margarita BOP’ a cultivar developed by Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas nursery) forms a strong cohesive and colorful edging in a very dry, exposed garden in Stonyford, CA.

It is officially spring and I spent a good part of the first day of spring cutting the dead and spent seed heads back on herbaceous perennials. This cutting back is rejuvenating for the plants, stimulating lush new growth from the base, now that the chance of frost is unlikely, most of the seeds are distributed and most potential nesting materials gathered by the birds that might want them.

PHOTO: Native Colorado penstemon (Penstemon sp.) in spring bloom on a rocky foothills outcropping.

Among the plants getting their spring haircut were penstemons, the colors and tubular flower forms of which I look forward to expectantly each spring – as do my garden’s many hummingbirds. I remember the purple penstemons of the high meadows around my childhood home situated at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and how my mother would use the almost iridescent stems in her floral designs for early summer brides.

PHOTO: The dramatic and elegant almost 6 foot high wands of Palmer’s penstemon (Penstemon palmeri) in bloom in a low-water Chico home garden. These tall graceful plants with their glaucus blue-green leaves can be found on roadside verges in the high valleys between Mt. Shasta and Klamath Falls as well as in the Mojave desert.

Penstemons are prized by Western gardeners for good reason – they comprise the largest genus of flowering plants endemic to North America with more than 250 species – most of which are western natives and most of which bloom in vibrant colors, thriving in conditions we know well: hot, dry and lean.

PHOTO: A close up of Palmer’s penstemon (Penstemon palmeri) illustrating the so-called bearded tongue.

Penstemons were reclassified in the last 10 years from the figwort family of plants to the plantain family of plants. Their common name of beardtongue is due to a sterile stamen having a tuft of hairs forming a fuzzy beard on the prominent lower petal.

PHOTO: The bright red scarlet bugler Penstemon (Penstemon centranthifolius) in the wilds of Colusa County.

Penstemons offer an amazing range of color in the wild and in the garden – cream, white, pink, purple, blue, and red among them. Besides this and their willingness to survive hot, dry conditions and look lovely, another reason to add penstemons to your life is their usefulness in almost any part of the garden. Penstemons come as low ground hugging mats, as bushy mid-sized pools of color, or as elegant wands suited to be stars at the back of a planting.

PHOTO: A deep purple blue patch of native penstemon (Penstemon sp.) in attractive bloom in the Trinity Alps in July.

Some penstemons will bloom better with regular water, but not all, and under most garden conditions they are what we think of as short-lived perennials, lasting 2 – 4 seasons before needing to be replaced. That said, they are very agreeable in their willingness to reseed and/or to reproduce easily by cuttings. In the garden, cutting back the spent flower stems before they go to seed will encourage repeat bloom through the season. With a well chosen variety of penstemons, you can have bloom from March – August.

PHOTO: Deep pink Mountain Pride penstemon (Penstemon newberryi)can be found as bright carpets in the high rocky reaches of Plumas County as well as the Trinity Alps.

While the species we see in the wild from deserts to foothill meadows to alpine scree are sometimes not willing to make the move to the garden, there’s a wide selection of garden-happy cultivars to try and they are perfect for planting in the garden right now in early spring.

PHOTO: The cultivar P. ‘Garnet’ forms a bright edging in a small home garden Chico.

Some long flowering and colorful cultivars worth trying include the more water-tolerant, bushy 18 – 24 inch ‘Evelyn’, which is a clear pink, and ‘Garnet’ which has a slightly deeper wine color. Also, P. ‘Husker Red’, with its burgundy colored stems and white blooms as well as the species foothills penstemon – P. heterophyllus and one of its cultivars P. h. ‘Margarita BOB’. The drier-loving penstemons pair well with salvias and buckwheats to make a lush-looking waterwise and habitat friendly planting that will look good from spring through fall.

PHOTO: The fresh, saturated color of foothills penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus).

For those of you considering replacing thirsty plants or lawn in this year of deep drought, consider adding some penstemons to your list. Find a sunny spot, provide good drainage, water as needed while they are getting established and then once a week at most after that. No fertilizer needed. Cut the blooms and bring them inside. Or, sit back and enjoy them and the many garden visitors they invite into the garden with them – big fat bumblebees, whirring hummingbirds, and content gardeners.

PHOTO: Tall pink Cleveland penstemon (Penstemon clevelandii) in a dry, desert planting in the Oroville garden of Catie and Jim Bishop

For more information on Penstemons, visit the American Penstemon Society.

The society is hosting a conference May 16-19, 2014: The 2014 APS rendezvous will be headquartered at Springdale, UT, with a backdrop of Zion National Park. Those who join in this APS annual event will see many penstemons and other native flora of southwestern Utah at a prime time for comfortable temperatures and unsurpassed desert color. Formal tours during this event will be held in Zion National Park, and a loop which will pass near Cedar City, Old Iron Town, Enterprise, Snow Canyon, and the edge of the Mojave Desert in Utah; where we will see a diverse variety of penstemons and other native plants.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.