Penstemon is a superb plant for northern California gardens. Native to the western United States, Penstemon grows in our area with little care and produces beautiful blooms late spring through summer.
The common name for Penstemon is “Beardtongue”, which is a little weird if you ask me. Beards and tongues are fine in flower names, but what exactly is a “beardtongue”? The botanical name, Penstemon, comes from “five stamens,” one of the characteristics of the plant. Sometimes one of these is hairy or bearded giving rise to the common name. The Penstemon flowers have five petals, usually divided into two lips: the upper one of two lobed (rounded) petals and the lower of three cleft (cut) petals.
Penstemon (tribe Cheloneae: Scrophulariaceae) is a large genus (about 275 species) of perennial plants endemic to North America, ranging from Alaska to Guatemala and from coast-to-coast.) Floral colors include white, yellow (rare), blue, violet, purple, pink, magenta, and red. Corollas can be tubular or funnel shaped. The flowers are highly attractive to and are pollinated by bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies, and hummingbirds.
I just discovered that there is a whole society dedicated to this wonderful garden plant. If you are interested in Penstemon, check out the American Penstemon Society website for lots of Penstemon pictures and information.
I have had great success with Penstemon in my garden in the Berkeley hills. I have found them to be tolerant of poor soil, heat, shade, drought, moles, deer and general neglect. They do like to be cut back in winter, and look best if pruned periodically to remove spent stalks. They are so easy to propagate, you can purchase a few plants and soon you will have Penstemon to give away to all your gardener friends. Here are a few of my favorites:
Penstemon hartwegii ‘Tubular Bells Rose’: This one has deep bronze green foliage and delicate rose-pink, funnel shaped blooms with contrasting red and white stripes. A robust plant that is easy to grow, with sturdy stems, a long bloom period and excellent garden performance. Self-cleaning too- so no dead heading is needed! Penstemon hartwegii is native to Mexico, and does well in our climate. It it not particular about soil, and can tolerate less than full sun.
Penstemon ‘Firebird’ : This durable plant, also known as Penstemon ‘Schönholzeri’, grows to 3 feet tall with reddish brown stems with 4 inch long lance shaped dark green leaves. The large trumpet-shaped rich red flowers are 1 ¼ inch long and as broad with a red throat that has some pale pink to white at the base and dark calyces. Blooms appear in a succession of flowering peaks from late spring until fall, often appearing year-round in coastal gardens. Plant in full sun along the coast and provide some light shade inland. Tolerates and even thrives in poor soils and alkaline conditions but requires relatively good drainage. Can survive very dry conditions in cooler coastal gardens but looks better with occasional irrigation and requires it in hotter locations. Pinch plants after the first bloom to promote a quick re-bloom and cut back hard in winter to encourage a new flush of dense growth in spring. While extremely showy, Border Penstemons are notably short lived and for plantings to look best, they should be replanted every 3-5 years.
Penstemon heterophyllus (Blue Bedder): A sub shrub/perennial to 2 feet tall with an equal spread that has glabrous linear deep green leaves. Flowering commences in late spring and early summer with yellow-tinged buds opening to bright blue flowers that have a rose-purple tinge and eventually fade to purple. Drought and heat tolerant and best cultivated in warm, sunny, well-drained sites. Hardy to 10 F. in California. This selection from Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas Nursery is noted for its tolerance of a wide range of garden conditions. Most people note that this cultivar is longer lived than other cultivars of this species.
Penstemon whippleanus ”Whipples Penstemon”: This rare-in-the-trade Penstemon is native to the Southwest and grows very well in the Bay Area. Striking, deep burgundy flowers with pin-striped, cream colored throats are borne in late summer. Plants grow from 2-4’ tall & up to 3’ wide. Leaves are soft green & lance shaped.