Penstemon, Penstemon spp.

February 29, 2020

By Matt

Did You Know?

Penstemon is called beardtongue for its hairy, sterile stamen, which looks like a hairy tongue protruding between lip-shaped petals!

Snapshot

  • Penstemon is a perennial plant native to North America. It grows in large clumps, 3 to 5 feet high and 1½  to 2 feet wide. The leaves are dark green and lance-shaped.
  • Plants bloom from spring to fall, with multiple, trumpet-shaped flowers borne on tall, strong stalks. Blooms can be white or one of many shades of red, pink, purple, or blue. Plants will self-seed if blooms are left in place through fall and winter.
  • Penstemon gets its name from the Greek words describing its 5 stamens (penta is Greek for 5, and stemon is, of course, stamen).

What Makes Penstemon So Awesome?


Caption: Penstemon ‘Cherry Sparks’
Penstemon flowers’ trumpet shape and bright colors are especially good for hummingbirds, but the blooms also attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The long blooming season ensures plenty of nectar and enough colorful spikes to cut several to include in flower arrangements.

Leaves provide food for deer and antelope, and the anicia checkerspot and other butterfly larvae for which native penstemon is a host plant. The bushy, upright plants provide shelter for small birds, many of which eat penstemon seeds in winter.

Penstemon is a tough perennial that’s drought tolerant once established, and it performs well in dry, poor soil. Its strong root system provides erosion control for slopes and other difficult areas where penstemon thrives, and its ability to reseed makes it great for naturalizing.

How Can I Grow One?

Penstemon prefers full sun, and medium to dry sandy or gravelly soil. It also does well in raised beds. Don’t plant penstemon in areas with poor drainage. Water regularly until plants are established, and allow the top inch of soil to dry between waterings. Mature plants shouldn’t require water in cooler months, but will need some watering during the summer. This plant has no serious insect or disease problems, and is deer-resistant. 

Deadhead blooms to encourage reblooming, or leave intact and allow to reseed. Some seed pods are attractive and will provide winter interest and food for birds. Penstemon can also be propagated by division or stem cuttings; some varieties can spread aggressively.

Penstemon grows in Zones 3 to 9.

Penstemon ‘Twizzle Purple’

Varieties to try: ‘Cherry Sparks’ features large, cherry-red trumpets with white throats on 2-foot stalks. Plants are compact, and grow to 1 to 2 feet, with a similar spread. They have a long bloom season, from May through August. This cultivar will not reseed.

‘Twizzle Purple’ has vibrant purple blooms on tall stalks. It grows to 3 feet, and provides colorful height to borders and perennial gardens, and even containers. This variety blooms summer through early fall, and will reseed.

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