Plant Profile: Bring on the Wildflowers

Botanical name: Penstemon (pen-stay-mon)

Family: Scrophulariaceae

Range: Native to the Western United States and Mexico

This huge genus of wildflowers is essential for any xeriscape garden and is one of the best flowers for attracting hummingbirds. There are more than 250 penstemon species. They can be found growing on sandy, arid hillsides; in forests; on the plains; and from the low deserts to the highest mountains, so choosing a species suited for your specific conditions no matter where you live is easy. They range from 1 to 6 feet in height and can spread from 1 to 3 feet across. Most are perennial, can be deciduous or evergreen, are drought-tolerant, come in a rainbow of colors, and like their relative, the snapdragon, produce flowers along a spike.

Penstemons feel at home in rock gardens, borders, courtyards, containers, wild gardens, meadows, and look wonderful with Southwest plants which share their water usage, to include yuccas, cacti, and our native trees and shrubs. Plants improve with age and reach their glory in the second or third year.

After blooming, let the seed heads ripen on the stalk, collect, and scatter them where you want to start a new colony or leave seed heads on the plant and let them do the work for you. Depending on the weather conditions in winter, you should see new volunteers next spring. Most require well-draining, loose, sandy, or gravely soil. Poorly drained soils encourages crown rot, as well as "wet mulches" (wood mulches), so use a "dry mulch" such as sand or rocks. During the bloom period, if the weather is hot and dry, a supplemental, deep irrigation every ten to fourteen days will keep the foliage and flowers looking their best.

If you are new to this wonderful group of plants, here are a few of the easier ones to try first. If you are a "Penstemaniac," go crazy! P. eatonii (Fire cracker Penstemon) grows 2 feet high x 15 inches wide. Native to Utah. A prolific bloomer in late spring with numerous spikes of scarlet flowers and dark green foliage. A head turner, P. palmeri (Pink Wild Snapdragon) grows 4-5 feet high x 24 inches wide. Native to New Mexico and Arizona. Very hardy, heat-tolerant beardtongue with highly fragrant spikes of huge, light white blossoms that are tinged with lilac or pink. Flowers in early summer. Grey foliage. P. pseudospectabilis (Desert Beardtongue) 36 inches x 18 inches wide. Native to southern New Mexico. Loves hot weather! Long spikes of hot pink flowers with grey leaves. Deadheading faded flowers will keep the plant blooming for many months. Penstemon - a wildflower you should get to know. Happy Spring everyone!

Cheri Melton
March, 1997