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by David Salman

(Penstemon pinifolius)

Penstemon pinifolius 'Nearly Red' with Lavandula angustifolia 'Buena Vista'Penstemon pinifolius 'Nearly Red' with Lavandula
angustifolia 'Buena Vista'.

I’ve been gardening in the high, dry climate of northern New Mexico for all of my adult life and have been humbled by its unpredictability and harsh growing conditions. And yet, when you begin to understand how to coax a sustainable water-wise landscape from this unforgiving land, the results can be spectacular and the satisfaction genuine.

Choosing the Right Plants

A big part of a successful Western landscape is choosing the right plants. Believe it or not, there are actually a lot of plants, especially perennial flowers and ornamental grasses, which grow naturally in conditions that expose the plants to intense sun, sparse rainfall, wind, heat, cold and poor, nutrient deficient alkaline soils. And one of these rugged plants is a stunning native wildflower, Pineleaf Beardtongue (Penstemon pinifolius). Native to a rather limited area in the mountains of southern and southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, this species has demonstrated an amazing adaptability and has been successfully cultivated as far away as merry old England!

Some Botany

The flowers are shaped like narrow trumpets and the evergreen foliage resembles the needles of a pine tree. In fact, out of flower, the plant resembles a miniature mugo pine. Unlike many Beardtongues, which can be short lived and stay around in the garden by reseeding themselves, Pineleaf Beardtongue is long lived when happy. I’ve had the same plants live for a decade in my various gardens! The plant loves plenty of sun, a “lean” (low fertility), fast draining soil. Penstemon pinifolius is propagated from both seed and cuttings. And when you plant it, the hummingbirds are sure to arrive. It is a long blooming source of nectar for them.

Pineleaf Cultivars

I have been enamored by Penstemon pinifolius since I first moved to Santa Fe more than 30 years ago. Gail Haggard, owner of Plants of the Southwest in Santa Fe, had been growing the variety ‘Compactum’ for some time before I arrived and it had been widely planted around Santa Fe. Its beauty inspired me to find more selections of the plant. I currently grow 6 cultivars of P. pinifolius.

Penstemon pinifolius 'Compactum' with Agave neomexicana.Penstemon pinifolius 'Compactum' with Agave neomexicana.
  • Penstemon pinifolius ‘Nearly Red’ – with a long, thin, nearly red flower and long mid-green leaves, it is a graceful, taller growing selection. Mid-summer blooming. A HCG introduction.
  • P. pinifolius ‘Mersea Yellow’ – a yellow flowered selection discovered growing in England.
  • P. pinifolius ‘Magdalena Sunshine’- another yellow flowered selection discovered in the Magdalena Mountains of central New Mexico. The plant is more compact than ‘Mersea Yellow’
  • P. pinifolius ‘Compactum’ – a tight, compact growing form that blooms in late spring with a haze of scarlet flower spikes.
  • P. pinifolius ‘Tall Orange Mix’ – a collection of 5 different plants from the same seed source blooming in mid-summer with orange to scarlet flowers. A HCG introduction.
  • Penstemon pinifolius 'Magdalena Sunshine' with Penstemon 'Red Rocks'Penstemon pinifolius 'Magdalena
    Sunshine' with Penstemon 'Red Rocks'.
  • P. pinifolius ‘Shades of Mango’- my first Pineleaf selection that I no longer grow. It had amazing flowers that emerged light mango orange and aged to scarlet. Unfortunately this “sport” wasn’t stable and the plant reverted to solid mango colored flowers.
  • P. pinifolius ‘Melon’ – a nice selection I found in Colorado with cantaloupe colored flowers on a compact plant. A HCG introduction. (Not currently available)
  • P. pinifolius ‘Hot Lava’. To be released in spring 2015. A HCG introduction. It’s a mid- to late summer bloomer with short, dense foliage and smoldering dark scarlet flowers like hot lava spilling down off the lip of a volcano. I believe it is a cross between two adjacent plants in my garden, ‘Shades of Mango’ and an un-named subalpine form from the mountains of central New Mexico.

Pineleaf Beardtongue is widely growable across much of the US (except for the Deep South and zone 4 and colder areas of the northern tier states). It is a remarkable wildflower that will likely thrive in your toughest garden conditions.

Text By David Salman

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