I get excited about this time every year when the penstemons start to bloom, both in the nursery and in the wild. The colors and diverse forms of the penstemon species found in the West are amazing. In Washington we have at least 28 species found in nature. Many charming and lovely plants are among these but when you learn that there are over 250 penstemon species in the West you realize that we represent a small faction of what’s out there. I currently grow eleven Washington species, aiming to show a range of growth habits and colors, and another seven species from other states. It’s a problem; for a penstemon aficionado (aka penstemaniac) where do you stop? I vowed just over two years ago to cut back on wildflowers (“That’s not where the money comes from”, he said!) but here I go again. I know some of you appreciate finding penstemons in their native habitats and the beauty they can provide to rock gardens and naturalized landscapes.
Shrubby penstemon in the nursery
The first species to bloom, for me, are shrubby penstemon (Penstemon fruticosus) and Chelan penstemon (P. pruinosus), which flower beginning in mid April. The blooming season is wrapped up by cutleaf penstemon (P. richardsonii), with its long bloom period extending into August. Penstemons are attractive to many pollinators. Bumblebees mob a number of species with large flower openings and I’ve found leafcutter bees of several species swarming penstemons on a warm afternoon, including a blue-black number that shows up when the Venus penstemon (P. venustus) is blooming in late May.
This bumblebee queen knows what she’s after (May 3, 2016)
I’ve added a number of new penstemon species this year. From Washington these include:
- Cascade penstemon (P. serrulatus) – a tall penstemon with purple-blue flowers that, unlike most penstemons, favors moist sites. From subalpine areas in Central WA.
- Cliff penstemon ( P. rupicola) – a mat-forming, evergreen penstemon with rose-pink flowers from rocky, high mountain areas.
- Davidson’s penstemon (P. davidsonii) – another low-growing, evergreen penstemon from the mountains, this one with lavender flowers
- Fuzzy-tongue penstemon (P. eriantherus) – from exposed, rocky sites from the pine forest to the shrub-steppe, with large pink-lavender flowers
- Showy penstemon (P. speciosus) – a tall penstemon from the shrub-steppe with lovely blue flowers, very drought-adapted
There are also several new ones from other Western states. One of my favorites is Newberry’s penstemon (P. newberryi), grown from seed collected in the high mountains of the northern Sierra Nevada of California. The form I’m growing has deep-pink, almost red flowers (a good red is rare and choice in native penstemons) on a low bushy evergreen plant. I grew less than a dozen this spring and they were snapped up; through cuttings, I hope to have more this fall!
And then there are my ongoing, fun trials with Peshastin Hybrid penstemon, the cross between Chelan penstemon and firecracker penstemon (P. eatonii). I’m in my fourth year and fourth generation of refining this cross, selecting and cross breeding for a sturdy plant with magenta flowers intermediate in form to the parents. Below is my latest edition, which I hope to produce consistently in a year or two.