Penstemons, commonly called Beard-tongues, referring to their hairy fifth stamen, form the largest genus of flowering plants endemic to North America. Their airy spikes come in all colors of the rainbow, attract hummingbirds, and range from drought tolerant to extremely drought tolerant.
A perfect companion to the West’s climate, these
flowers are generally insect/pest free, and hardly affected by hail. Many of these hot and dry lovers are available from the nursery trade here in Colorado. Many more species, probably hundreds, are available from seed and germinate notoriously easily. These can been found in specialty seed catalogs and exchanges.
Although Penstemons have a reputation for being short lived in the garden, it is certainly not true of many varieties. Here are some tricks that experienced growers have found for keeping these beauties returning yearly. Remove all but a few of the spent flower stalks after blooms have past. This promotes strong basal growth that is needed for the plants to last over the winter; also, using a mulch of small rock or pebbles in your garden bed rather than the more popular wood mulch will highly increase the chance of Penstemons re-seeding successfully into the garden bed. I recommend buying plants that have been proven to be long lasting from the nursery trade and plant species you’re unsure of from seed, its much more cost effective that way.
1. Try using Colorado natives like P. brandegei and P. barbatus in a dry sunny cactus garden. Lay down a couple inches of pea gravel, some ornamental stones, drift wood, or garden art. And fill in your garden with no maintenance cold hardy cacti, fiber plants such as red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), and hardy century plant (Agave parryi).
2. Penstemons can set off a magnificent display of color mixed and matched in a mixed border or cottage style garden. Try native P. strictus or any of the P. Mexacali hybrids promoted by Plant Select© to get started on an early summer fireworks show.
There is really no reason to not find a place in any Colorado garden for one or more of these brilliant flowering plants. The use of native and drought tolerant plants in our landscapes helps protect our great reserve of plant diversity in Colorado, provides habitat and food for local wildlife, and takes less maintenance and use of needed resources as they already fit perfectly into our climate.
Photos taken from these recommended garden books.
Nold,Robert. 2008. High and dry: gardening with cold hardy dryland plants. Timber Press.
Springer, Lauren. Proctor, Rob. 2000. Passionate gardening: good advice for challenging climates. Fullcrum Publishing