The Genus Penstemon; The Royalty of American Wildflowers (Part 2)

'Little Night' European Sage with Penstemon pinifolious.

Recommended Varieties

I have numerous favorites amongst the 300 or so species of Beardtongues. Admittedly, my favorites are well adapted to the high desert/intermountain region in which I garden. These plants all thrive in cold zone 6 winters, arid conditions and extremely intense sunlight. But they also thrive in other regions of the country where their needs for nutrient poor, very fast draining soil can be met. Higher rainfall and rain/snow-freeze/thaw winters are frankly the biggest limiting factor for the species not listed in “The Best For East of the Mississippi.”

Fine, Thin Leaved Species

One of this genus’s best attributes is their foliage. I particularly admire these Penstemon in my xeriscapes as they have year-round interest with their outstanding finely textured, evergreen foliage.

1.  Penstemon pinifolius (Pineleaf Beardtongue)

This species and its various cultivars are at the top of this list. (And the hummingbirds love these plants as much as I do!) After blooming, I always trim off the faded flower spikes to accentuate their captivating leaves. These Beardtongues look like miniature mugo pines holding their place in the landscape like small shrubs. Pineleaf Beardtongue is also an exceptionally long lived member of the genus.

I grow numerous selections that range in flower color from:

  • Yellow (‘Magdalena Sunshine’) – blooms in late spring- early summer at 10″ in height.
  • Scarlet (‘Compactum’) – blooms in late spring at 10 ″ in height.
  • Orange and orange-red (‘Tall Orange Mix’) – blooms in summer at 18″ in height.
  • Apricot-orange (‘Melon’) – blooms in late spring 8-10″ in height
  • Nearly red (‘Nearly Red’) – blooms in summer 15-18″ in height

Pineleaf Beardtongue has proven to be growable outside of the western US finding a home as far away as England. Full sun, a southern or western exposure and sandy soil are a must.

2.Penstemon ‘Blue Lips’

Another favorite came to me as a seedling in my xeric garden. ‘Blue Lips’ is a bee created hybrid cross between two of my other thin leaved favorites, Penstemon lineariodes v. coloradensis and the incredible Penstemon crandali. Not only are the short spikes of blue lipped, lavender throated flowers a joy in late spring, but the Douglas Fir-like, gray-blue leaves give the plant year-round appeal. This low growing hybrid (10″ tall x 15-18″ wide) has great vigor and incredibly dense branching making it a nice small scale groundcover for hot, dry areas. I’m not sure how this stunner will do outside the West, but it merits experimentation.

3.  Penstemon rostriflorus (Bridge’s Beardtongue)

This species is an amazing bloomer, literally exploding into color in mid-summer with a hundreds of scarlet-orange tubular trumpets. And the flowers just keep coming, particularly with a few late summer thundershowers. Native from Utah west to eastern CA, this is a larger growing species (24-36″ tall x 15-18″ wide) that hummingbirds go crazy over when they find it in their garden. The bright green foliage is much larger than the fine needle-shaped leaves of P. pinifolius and ‘Blue Lips’ but it has an excellent, fine textured look in the garden. Bridge’s Penstemon is strictly a western species thriving from elevations of 5,000 to 10,000 ft. It likes cool summer nights so it’s not a low desert species.

Text and Photos By David Salman

© All articles are copyrighted by High Country Gardens. Republication is prohibited without permission.

4 thoughts on “The Genus Penstemon; The Royalty of American Wildflowers (Part 2)”

  • Sandra

    Why don't you grow/sell Penstemon rostriflorus - especially if you're writing about it?

  • bonnytexas

    Thanks alot for these two articles, as I did not know much of anything about the culture of penstemons. Have known how beautiful they are, however!

  • Lisa

    I have some Palmer Penstemon that is simply huge--and still blooming on a few tips in August in north central Washington. I love how the biggest bumblebees barely fit onto their landing pads. I love the wavey edges of their leaves and the way they remind me of succulents. I planted some tall red penstemons, too, hoping the hummers would find them, but they were ignored as far as I could tell. The hummingbirds are interested in my pinifolius--I saw one there this morning, though I just planted them this year and there aren't many flowers I'm hoping maybe next year we'll see more birds when the plants get stronger.

  • Ardie Shaffer
    Ardie Shaffer 03/27/12 at 11:03 am

    Dave, I have a penstemon question. I have 2 firebird clumps in my garden. They sent out long flower stalks last season, and now have new growth at the very ends but most of the leaves between the base and the ends are frost-damaged. Should I cut them all the way back to the basal clump or just trim off the damaged leaves? I haven't touched them since they were planted. I left the seed heads on through the winter, and I'm seeing lots of new spring growth at the base. They are gravel-mulched.

    Any advice would be much appreciated. I live in Greenehaven, AZ, at 3900', Zone 6 for the most part.


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