06 March 2014

Penstemon varieties for every garden

Beard tongue is the common name for husker red penstemon, or penstemon digitalis husker red. Admittedly, some gardeners consider it a thug due to its eagerness to reproduce, but penstemon has its place in the cottage and butterfly garden.

The leaf color is a gorgeous green and purple-maroon. The late-May flowers are white, with a soft lavender-pink color at the bud-base. Hummingbirds and tiny pollinators visit the flowers. Plus, the plants are durable enough to be successful in your most challenging dry soil in part-sun, at the base of shrubs, or along the sidewalk. However, with too much shade and they can become weak and fall over. 


Like many penstemons, they are cold hardy in zones 3 to 8, making them shrug off our ice and snow. Plus, husker red is one of the few penstemons that can thrive despite a wet winter, or drought, humidity and heat. Penstemons are mostly native to dry climates so the one condition that they cannot tolerate is wet clay or locations where the planting area stays wet. If they are too wet, they will get root rot. Some gardeners have reported leaf spot.

Early in the spring, the leaves emerge from the ground in ruby colors. Then the stems and leaves shoot up to 2 or 3 feet tall and panicles of flowers follow.

The word penstemon means five stamens and each flower has four fertile and one sterile stamen with hair. The beard tongue common name comes from the hair on that sterile stamen.

Penstemons are deer and rabbit resistant which is important for those of us who generally tolerate wildlife in our yards.

Divide the clumps every year in the spring or take cuttings in the summer to increase plantings or to share them with other gardeners. The seeds are started by planting now and keeping cold outside for 4-weeks. Then, they can be brought inside or left outside where they will germinate at 55-65 degrees. Seed source: www.dianeseeds.com.

If you want to purchase potted husker red penstemon, be sure to look for the dark red leaves or you might be getting smooth penstemon which has green stems and leaves.

A shorter, but no less attractive penstemon variety, margarita BOP penstemon, Penstemon x heterophyllus margarita, was named for being found at the Bottom Of the Porch at Las Pilitas Nursery (www.laspilitas.com).

This variety is known for being long-lived and has unusual purple-pink and blue flowers. This is another choice for wildlife enthusiasts since the nectar feeds butterflies and hummingbirds and the seeds are eaten by songbirds. They thrive in zones 6 to 9 and grow 18 inches tall and wide. Seeds: Audubon Workshop, www.audubonworkshop.com.

Large beardtongue, Penstemon grandiflorus, is native from North Dakota to Texas and is known for its generous display of flowers. Large beardtongue is a prairie plant that is a carefree garden choice for part-sun. It matures at 4 feet tall and has 2-inch-long lavender-blue flowers. It is recommended that these be planted in large clumps for best pollinator success. Seed source: Everwilde Farms, www.everwilde.com.

Pagoda penstemon or broadleaf beardtongue, Penstemon angustifolius Nutt. ex pursh, is native from Oklahoma to Utah. It also has blue flowers but grows to a maximum height of 12 inches in zones 4 to 10. Pagoda likes sandy soil or rock gardens, meaning it needs to be planted where the soil is on the dry side at all times.

There is also a pure white flowering penstemon native to Oklahoma called Penstemon oklahomensis pennell oklahoma beardtongue. Oklahoma penstemon is native exclusively to Oklahoma and it is highly valued by native bees.

The website for the American Penstemon Society is a source of information about hundreds of Penstemons at http://apsdev.org.


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