Penstemon a unique plant for the garden

Rocky Mountain Penstemon has beautiful color mixes that are quite attractive in the garden. John Zvirovski / The Sun

During the summer season, there seems to be an endless array of garden plants that you can have in the garden. Like the stars in the heavens, there are no two gardens that are completely identical and each one has its own flair. As we see some of the irises and peonies begin to fade, many new plant types are beginning to bloom such as the delphiniums, false indigos, campanulas and penstemon. I like them all to be frank, but this week I seem to like the penstemon the most.

Penstemon are a large group of flowering plants closing in at nearly 250 varieties. Of course many are native to North America and a large group are hardy in our area. They range in flower colors of white, red, pink, purple, white, lavender and blue. They are not heavy in scent but what they lack in smell they make up for in color. Some of the flowers have multiple shades of blue and purple in the same flowers giving them a unique pop in the garden.

These plants have lance-shaped leaves that appear as soon as the snow leaves; some are even evergreen. They create a leave whorl or nest on the ground before the bud stem come up from the center with a stem of leaves and flower buds. Some of these stems can have nearly 100 small flowers on them and put on quite the show.

They enjoy a well-drained soil with plenty of sunlight but do not like to be in wet areas. They are more of an arid plant and tend to like it drier to the touch. One of the largest public displays of penstemon exist in Arizona if that tells you anything! They do not seem to be very fussy about the soils they grow in either, as mine do very well in a heavy type soil with no amendments.

Of the varieties that exist, one of my favorite is the Rocky Mountain penstemon. This plant grows to about 18 inches tall and is heavy with flowers. Since the stems are shorter, they tend not to fall in winds or rain. When the flowers open, they are in shades of lavender, purple and blue often with all three colors in one flower. When the plant gets some age to it, it can produce a couple dozen stems at once creating a natural bouquet of flowers. Their leaves are typically a dark green in color.


If you are looking for a little different variety that has red leaves, try the ‘Husker Red’ selection. This one also gets to about 18 to 20 inches in height and produces white to light pink flowers that are a little larger than the Rocky Mountain type. Many people plant this one for the leave color alone.

‘Elfin Pink’ is a pretty coral color on 2- to 3-foot stems that have flowers hanging from the underside. They are a little more delicate in bloom and sometimes these stems can blow to the ground if grown in the open, so a cage or type of staking might be necessary in our neck of the woods. Their leaves are a lighter green in color.

There is also an annual type of penstemon for our area that is a very sturdy plant with large flowers on it. The stems will reach about 18 inches tall and have a bloom about the size of a nickel. These flower are usually about three times the size of a perennial selection. They come in red, pink and purple and all have white throats. These are great when grown in groups and as long as you clip off the spent flower stems, you will continue to get new flowers throughout the season. Perennial penstemon only have one bloom period.

Penstemon is also known as Beardstongue. This name comes from the petals of the flower having two prominent ‘lips’ with a fuzzy ‘tongue’ that comes out giving it that name.

Perennials in the garden always add a great twist to all the trees, shrubs and annuals that we plant in the flower beds. They are the plants that give us a huge bang for the buck for a two- to three-week period and then they typically remain vegetative. So if you are looking for longer and more lasting color, get a selection that also has great leaf texture or color to add interest long after the blooms have faded away.

Don’t forget this weekend is also Father’s Day, so maybe a gift of lawn mowing, tree trimming or garden weeding would be on the agenda to give as a gift to your dad during this time. A simple suggestion that can make a lasting impact!

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