The Beardtongue Family: Penstemania for Penstemon

Penstemon pinifolius 'Tall Orange Mix'Penstemon pinifolius 'Tall Orange Mix'

The Beardtongue family, also known by their latin genus Penstemon, have a passionate following of gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans, especially the English have been breeding and growing lots of very showy, but not cold hardy Penstemon hybrids for many years. And here in America, the genus has had a small but growing group of enthusiasts, myself included, who are fondly known as “Penstemaniacs.” Penstemania is especially strong in the western US, where the native western Penstemon are the showiest and most spectacular members of this wildflower group.

Ideal Growing Conditions for Penstemon

The key to growing the Beardtongues is not giving them too much—too much water, too much fertilizer and too much attention are not appreciated by this group of native plants. In nature, Penstemon are pioneer plants that are some of the first wildflowers to move into places with disturbed soils and areas burned by fire. They can take the difficult dry growing conditions necessary for them to be the plants that first colonize an area. And they are strong re-seeders so they can move into new territory. They then gradually give way to other wildlfowers as the soil and growing conditions improve.

Penstemon 'Blue Mist'Penstemon 'Blue Mist'

Here are a few helpful tips to remember when bringing Beadtongues into your gardens.

  • These plants love a new garden where the soil has been turned and lightly prepared for planting with organic fertilizers (simulating disturbed soil).
  • They establish quickly and the amount and frequency of watering needs to be reduced after about 8 to 10 weeks (creating dry conditions).
  • They need “elbow room”, maximum sun, heat and don’t like to be crowded by other plants.
  • And they love gravel mulch, like you’d find covering the bare earth in disturbed soils, to help them establish their roots more quickly and re-seed themselves.

Penstemon mexicali 'Red Rocks'Penstemon mexicali 'Red Rocks'

After growing these beauties in my gardens for 30 years, I have observed that the Penstemon seedlings that establish themselves from seed produced by the original transplants are the best and most vigorous plants.

Favorite Penstemon Varieties

With over 300 recognized species and subspecies of Penstemon, there are a lot to choose from. Some the best garden varieties include the orange, scarlet and yellow flowered Pineleaf Beardtongue (Penstemon pinifolius and selections), the award-winning Penstemon mexicali 'Red Rocks' (Red Rocks Hybrid Beardtongue), the lavender-blue Blue Mist Beardtongue (Penstemon virens) and the red and white flowered ‘Rubycunda’ Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon barbatus hybrid).

Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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  • Dark Towers Beardtongue Penstemon Dark Towers

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  • Compact Pineleaf Penstemon Penstemon pinifolius Compactum

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  • Yellow Pineleaf Beardtongue Penstemon pinifolius Mersea Yellow

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8 thoughts on “The Beardtongue Family: Penstemania for Penstemon”

  • Sonnie

    Are penstemons deer and rabbit resistant? They are beautiful and I'd love to plant them in an area around the driveway and house, but everything that can be eaten, is, by the hungry deer and rabbits.

    • David Salman

      Sonnie, Penstemon are both rabbit and deer resistant.

      But remember to protect recent transplants out in your yard with the use of rabbit and deer repellents for the first couple of months. Nursery grown plants (grown in soil-less mixes) don't have enough of the bitter compounds in their leaves that make plants browse resistant. The plants need to grow in the soil for several months for the bitter compounds to begin to build up in the leaves and stems.

  • Thea

    Are there any varieties that do well in cooler northern california coastal climate? Temperatures usually in 70s daytime (even down to 60s if there is cloud cover). Night time 40's to 50's. Often a bit windy.

    • David Salman

      Thea, your growing conditions are not what most Beardtongue prefer. Especially if you get a lot of fog in your area. I would recommend the English hybrid types. We don't sell them at High Country because they are not very cold hardy but have been breed in England where growing conditions are similar to yours.

  • Naomi Allen
    Naomi Allen 06/07/13 at 7:42 pm you deadhead them?

    • David Salman

      Naomi, it depends on the Penstemon that you are growing. Penstemon that are grown from seed like Palmer's Beardtongue (P. palmeri), Desert Beardtongue (P. pseudospectabilis), Rocky Mountain Beardtongue (P. strictus) and Foothills Beardtongue (P. virens) should not be deadheaded completely. Leave some stems with the seed pods on them to encourage the plants to re-seed themselves. Beardtongue hybrids like 'Red Rock' and 'Elfin Pink' should be dead-headed completely to help them live longer.

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