David’s Favorite Plants: Pineleaf Beardtongue

(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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4 thoughts on “David’s Favorite Plants: Pineleaf Beardtongue”

  • liz

    I miss 'Melon'. I loved that plant! I still have some in my yard but wish I could have more of them!

  • jen

    I live in Grand Junction CO, with similar climate to the writer. Last summer during July/August I went on a "shopping spree" for the garden to fill in colorless spots. My choice of plants was penstemon, over hyssop. Hyssop is wonderful but I have to wait all summer for the rewards and it really doesn't like any water. Penstemon blooms twice for me in May and August to September. If I use as many varieties and colors as I can find I can count on color almost the entire blooming season through September. If it is near my tomatoes or strawberries it can't get over watered and it can go a week with one water in the heat of the summer.It winters well every year. It spreads without taking over. The colors have impact I can see from indoors, in blended tones that mimic beautiful paintings.I like to try new things, but sometimes there is a great plant that just needs to be repeated again and again. HCG has the best choice of "exotic varieties", but they will sell out of the most beautiful ones early.

    • HCG Staff

      Thanks for the kind words Jen. Penstemon, as you mentioned are perfectly suited for your area. We'd love to see a photo of your garden. It sounds fabulous. If you get a chance please post one to our Facebook page.

  • Carol Padgett
    Carol Padgett 03/31/14 at 11:46 am

    Love, love, love

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