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  • Waterwise Gardening | David Salman

The Beardtongue Family: Penstemania for Penstemon

Penstemon pinifolius ‘Tall Orange Mix’

The Beardtongue family, also known by their latin genus Penstemon, have a passionate following of gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans, especially the English have been breeding and growing lots of very showy, but not cold hardy Penstemon hybrids for many years. And here in America, the genus has had a small but growing group of enthusiasts, myself included, who are fondly known as “Penstemaniacs.” Penstemania is especially strong in the western US, where the native western Penstemon are the showiest and most spectacular members of this wildflower group.

(Photo: Penstemon pinifolius ‘Tall Orange Mix’)

Photo: Penstemon virens

The key to growing the Beardtongues is not giving them too much -too much water, too much fertilizer and too much attention are not appreciated by this group of native plants. In nature, Penstemon are pioneer plants that are some of the first wildflowers to move into places with disturbed soils and areas burned by fire. They can take the difficult dry growing conditions necessary for them to be the plants that first colonize an area. And they are strong re-seeders so they can move into new territory. They then gradually give way to other wildlfowers as the soil and growing conditions improve.

(Photo: Penstemon virens)

Here are a few helpful tips to remember when bringing Beadtongues into your gardens.

  • These plants love a new garden where the soil has been turned and lightly prepared for planting with organic fertilizers (simulating disturbed soil).

  • They establish quickly and the amount and frequency of watering needs to be reduced after about 8 to 10 weeks (creating dry conditions).

  • They need “elbow room”, maximum sun, heat and don’t like to be crowded by other plants.

  • And they love gravel mulch, like you’d find covering the bare earth in disturbed soils, to help them establish their roots more quickly and re-seed themselves.

Penstemon mexicali ‘Red Rocks’

After growing these beauties in my gardens for 30 years, I have observed that the Penstemon seedlings that establish themselves from seed produced by the original transplants are the best and most vigorous plants.

(Photo: Penstemon mexicali ‘Red Rocks’)

With over 300 recognized species and subspecies of Penstemon, there are a lot to choose from. Some the best garden varieties include the orange, scarlet and yellow flowered Pineleaf Beardtongue (Penstemon pinifolius and selections), the award-winning Penstemon mexicali ‘Red Rocks’ (Red Rocks Hybrid Beardtongue), the lavender-blue Blue Mist Beardtongue (Penstemon virens) and the red and white flowered ‘Rubycunda’ Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon barbatus hybrid).

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