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Growing Penstemons – 7.428   arrow

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By: Y. Henson, L. Langelo, 2/2021

Quick Facts…

  • Penstemons grow in rock gardens, slopes, raised beds, troughs, pots, containers, traditional perennial border.
  • Penstemons attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.

Why Grow Penstemon?

There are many Penstemons that are native to Colorado (Nebraska). There are about 280 species of penstemon native to North America, 60+ native to CO and 24 natives to the Great Plains, including Nebraska which has about native 10 native species. However, there are other nonnative species and selections that grow in Colorado and Nebraska. There are

There are many Penstemons that are native to Colorado (Nebraska). There are about 280 species of penstemon native to North America, 60+ native to CO and 24natives to the Great Plains, including Nebraska which has about native 10 native species.
However, there are other nonnative species and selections that grow in Colorado and Nebraska. There are many benefits for using penstemon in home and commercial landscapes including naturally adapted to their specific Colorado/Nebraska climate, soil, and environmental conditions. When correctly sited, they do well on reduced inputs such as watering, fertilizing, and pruning. Penstemons can be used in a variety of environments from low desert to alpine. Using Penstemon in the landscape can bring you a variety of color from May through July. A few blooms later at high elevations and others have a second bloom later in the season. These plants range from herbaceous to woody. Though most live for many years, some are short-lived while others are biennial. This variety widens their use in the landscape making them more versatile.

Other benefits of using Penstemon native to Colorado/Nebraska is the increase in attracting pollinators. With the rapid urbanization of Colorado/Nebraska adding these plants to our landscapes helps to maintain biodiversity that might be lost to development such as building developments and road construction.

There are many options for the use of penstemon in the landscape.
Alpine, mixed shrub borders and rock gardens are also other uses. Many of the smaller varieties do well in troughs. When penstemon are utilized as bedding plants, they require warm well-drained soils with regular watering. They will bloom for a long period and perform best in soil with a long, mild summer and fall. Some examples of these are half-hardy hybrids like ‘Twizzle’ series, ‘Delfts Blue Riding Hood’, ‘Red Riding Hood’ and‘ Prairie Twilight’ mixes or seed strains.
If penstemon is used in a traditional perennial border, interplant other perennials with similar cultural requirements to extend the season’s color. Large-flowered European hybrids, eastern species, and their cultivars along with west coast penstemons are the best for zone 6 and above. Canadian and US hybrids, northern, mid-western and eastern species and their cultivars are used best in zones 5 and below.
Many of the tender new hybrids and species like Penstemon heterophyllus are all good choices for containers. Repeat flowering is important for container-grown penstemon.

Here are a few of the newer cultivated penstemon selections to try growing in the landscape, listed as follows: Blanca Peak Rocky Mountain Beardtongue, Penstemon strictus; Compact Pineleaf Beardtongue, Penstemon pinifolius ‘Compactum’; Electric Blue Foothills, Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Electric Blue’.

Selection

Penstemons are a low maintenance plant. However, some of the plants listed in the table can only be started from seed. Whether from seed or from a young plant, this does not mean they can grow successfully anywhere at any exposure. Chose a native or wild species that closely matches the type of soil, temperature range and precipitation of your landscape environment. You must understand what soil and exposure you have on your sites. Be sure to make use of the many micro-climates in your landscape to help find a place for a special penstemon.

Most penstemons require six hours of full sun to produce erect stems that produce flowers of clear and bright colors able to withstand wind and rain damage .As your elevation increases, the need for six hours of full sun decreases. However, there are some that prefer afternoon filtered light or shade. The higher the altitude or the hotter the climate, penstemon will bloom longer with some afternoon shade.

Planting

Penstemon requires good aeration and drainage. Good drainage and aeration are required for the crown of penstemon plants. Avoid planting in locations with standing water. Before planting, amend the soil with humus, fine gravel, and compost to add pore space to improve soil drainage and appropriate moisture retention and mix these ingredients in to a depth of 12 inches. The best amendment is a finished compost made from leaf mold. A finished compost changes soil structure well in all types of soil mixtures. Sites with a sand and gravel mix allow the home owner to accommodate a wider selection of penstemon, especially allows for drainage. Most penstemon prefer a slightly alkaline pH above 7.0. However, this requirement varies with the species. Incorporating pumice or ground oyster shell will help amend the soil for better growing conditions. When planting penstemon in rock gardens, slopes and raised beds, you have the most ideal sites for many penstemon. Northern and alpine species are dependent on your soil preparation and the area’s precipitation.

Watering Requirements/Water Use

Overall, penstemons are “drought tolerant”. Soils that are well-drained are ideal because they will allow for root penetration. It is extremely important to match the soil type with the desired species to meet the appropriate water requirement. This recommendation needs to be applied regardless of the environment it is planted in. This is a general rule that needs to be applied whether you are growing penstemon in a container, trough or as an annual. Remember the hybrids bred for garden containers will need regular watering which means infrequent slow-trickle watering.

Test the soil moisture weekly by inserting a long screwdriver in the soil to check how far the soil moisture has traveled. Adjust watering needs based on recent precipitation. The watering requirement for penstemon depends on species such as the large-flowered hybrid species that requires some moisture but not be allowed to dry out completely. Avoid overwatering these plants to avoid crown rot and decreased plant vigor.

Fertilizations

Generally, fertilization is not required. Older and longer blooming plants may benefit from fertilization. However, do not use fertilizers high in nitrogen. Fertilize after the first flush of blooms.

Continued Maintenance

To ensure the health of our penstemon, it is important to think about their care long after they are established. The large-flowered hybrids and bedding types need only dead-heading.

If more of these plants are desired, then leave the lower seed capsule to dry and reseed in the planting beds. Some penstemon species and hybrids will need to have their stems cut back after blooming. For many other species little pruning is needed. Winter protection is only necessary if the plants were not planted in the right place initially.

Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado counties cooperating. CSU Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.

Scientific Name Common NameGrowing ElevationBloom Time*ExposureSoil/ MoistureBloom ColorForm/                 H x WComments
Penstemon albidus White penstemon3,500-6,800’Late May, early JuneSunAdaptable, dryWhite to purplishErect stems, 10- 16” tallNative to the prairies of E CO and NE
Penstemon ambiguus Bush penstemon2,500-6,500’May through Summer- second flush with summer rainsSunLean, sandy, dryWhite to light pink, fragrant3” bushy mounds, widely spreading with ageOpen sandy sites in parklands and shrub lands of E CO
Penstemon angustifolius Narrowleaf penstemon4000-7,500’April – JuneSun  Well-drained, sandy or gravelly, drySky blue, pink or lavender1 to several erect stems to 1’ tallSemi-desert, woodlands and openings of NE and CO   P. angustifolius var. caudatus is the most adaptable and long-lived in the garden
Penstemon barbatus Scarlet bugler4,000-10,000’July-August with a repeat flush in September  Sun to part shadeAny well-drained, adaptableScarlet   ‘Elfin Pink’ is a popular cultivar with coral-colored flowers. 1 to a dozen stems, 4’ x 2’.   Evergreen leaves turn purple in winterSemi-desert, foothills, woodlands and openings (SC CO)      
Penstemon breviculis Short-stem beardtongue4,900-6,800’May and JuneSunSand or ClayBlue to purple1’ tall erect stems in multiplesSagebrush/ pinon- juniper of SW CO
Penstemon caespitosus Mat penstemon6,000-10,000’May and June (August)Sun to shadeSand or ClayBlue to blue-violetCreeping mat or low mound, 5- 8” x  1’Open sites in parks, canyon lands, shrub lands, forests of W CO
Penstemon cobaea Large-flowered beardtongue,  Dew flowerTo 5,000’(April)May- AugustSunAny well-drained, medium to dryWhite, pink, purple Largest-flowered penstemon species. 1-2’ x 1-1.5’Plains, open hillsides of SE CO   Common parent in many hybrids.
Penstemon comarrhenus Dusty beard tongue4,000- 10,000’May-AugustSun (falls over in shade)Well-drained, sandy to clayPink-blue18” – 3(4)’ x 6-12”Open woodlands, canyon sides in four corners states and Nevada
Penstemon cyanocaulis Blue-stemmed penstemon4,000- 9,000’May and JulySunCourse sand, gravelly, dryLavender-blue1 to a few stems, 1-2’ tallPinon-juniper forest openings of W CO
Penstemon digitalis Foxglove penstemon     May-AugustSun to light shadeAdaptable, medium moistureWhite, pink,  lavender3-4 (5)’ x 1.5’Not native to W US but naturalized in NE   P. digitalis ‘Husker Red’ is the standard with burgundy foliage.  ‘Dark Towers’ holds purple foliage color longer.   “Dakota Burgundy’ is shorter than the previous two.
Penstemon eatonii Firecracker penstemon2,000-7,500’April-JulySunWell-drained,  dry, leanScarletFew to several upright stems,    1-3’ x 1’Semi-desert, foothills in W CO   2 varieties:   P. eatonii var eatonii and P. eatonii var. undosus
Penstemon eriantherus Fussy-tongue penstemon4,600- 8,000’May-JulySun?Most, well-drained, dryLavender to pinkSpreading stems, 6-14” x 12-24”NE Colorado and NE
Penstemon fremontii Fremont’s penstemon5,000-8,000’May-JulySunSandy to clay loams, dryMedium to dark purple-blue1 to a few upright stems, 6-18” tallDry hillsides in shrub lands, pinon juniper forests, NW CO
Penstemon glaber Mountain beardtongue6,000- 10,000’(May) June – AugustSun to light shadeAdaptable, well-drainedMedium to dark, rich blue6-18(24)” x 2-3’Foothills to montane, gravelly soils in C CO   Two varieties found in CO: P. glaber var. brandegeei and P. glaber var. alpinus
Penstemon gracilis Slender penstemon4,600- 6,900’June- AugustSunSandy to gravelly, dryLavender to pale blueA few stems, 10-20” tallFoothills, meadows in Central CO
Penstemon grandiflorus Shell-leaved penstemon3,500-4,200’May-JulySun  Gravelly soil Short lived and susceptible to leaf-spot disease when over-wateredWhite, pink, lavender or blueErect, stout stems, 2-4’ tallPlanins of NE CO and NE    P. grandiflorus  ‘Prairie Jewel’ is a Plant SelectTM selection
Penstemon hallii Hall’s penstemon10,000- 14,000’   Adapts to gardens at lower elevationsJuly- AugustSun  Gravelly, sandy  Shades of blue to pinkCrowded stems to 8” tallAlpine plant found only in the central mountains of CO
Penstemon heterophyllus Foothills penstemon  Below 5,500’summersunAverage, medium to dry.Shades of blueEvergreen clumps 1.5’ x 1.5’Native to foothills, grasslands, chaparral & open forests of CA.    Best in containers and annual bedding except in warmest areas of CO.  Many hybrids. ‘Electric Blue’ has large intense blue flowers.
Penstemon lentus Thick penstemon5,500-7,800’May, JuneSun  Sandy, dryShades of blues and reds. There is also white-blue variety2’ stout, erect stemsSemi-desert, foothills,   woodlands and openings in Four Corners Region
Penstemon linarioides Bluemat penstemon4,000-10,000’May-AugustSun to part shadeWell-drained to heavy soils.  Very drought tolerant.  Lavender-blueMat of upright or sprawling stems,  1’ x 3’Sagebrush, pinon-juniper, ponderosa in Four Corners Region   P. linariodes subsp. coloradoensis ‘Silverton’ is a Plant SelectTM selection.
Penstemon mensarum Grand Mesa penstemon7,000- 10,200’May- JulySun to part shadeAdaptable, medium to dry  Deep blue-purpleSeveral stems to 3’ tallMeadows and forests, W CO A Plant SelectTM selection
Penstemon x mexicali Mexicali penstemon HybridsAt least 7,000’June – SeptembersunMoist to dryPinks to purples12-18” x 12-14”Hybrids of Mexican and American species   There are 5 Plant SelectTM selections
Penstemon palmeri Palmer’s penstemon2000-9,000’June – Aug.sunCourse, well-drained, lean, dryPale pink, fragrantTo 6’ x 14”Native to Utah desert shrub to mountain brush, PJ-ponderosa. Introduced to CO in roadside seed mixes.
Penstemon pinifolius Pine-leaved penstemon June and JulySun with some afternoon shadeAdaptable, medium to dryRed, orange, yellow10-12″ x 12-18″Native to S NM and E AZ ponderosa forests.   There are many different selections  
Penstemon rostriflorus Bridge’s penstemon  4,000-9,000’ (11,000’)June-SeptemberSun to dappled shadeWell-drained, rocky, gravelly, dryRed-orangeShrubby, evergreen mounds with many upright to sprawling stems, 2’ x 2’Open to semi-shaded sites in foothills in SW CO   A Plant SelectTM selection
Penstemon rydbergii Rydberg’s penstemon4,500- 11,500’July and AugustSunLoamy, organic, moist.  Tolerates dry.Blue-purpleMat with slender stems to 2.5’ tallMountain meadows and along streams in W CO  
Penstemon secundiflorus Sidebells penstemon4,800-10,500’May and JulySun  Well-drained, gravelly, sandyPink to lavender – blueSeveral erect stems to 20”tallPlains and foothills, montane C CO
Penstemon strictus Rocky Mountain penstemon6,500’-11,000’June-AugustSun to part shadeWell-drained, dry   This species is longer- lived when rarely given supplemental irrigationBlue-purple1 to many upright stems, 1-2.5’ x 2.5’Foothills, montane, subalpine W & C CO   ‘Blanca Peak’ is a Plant SelectTM selection with white flowers  
Penstemon tubaeflorus Tube beard tongueLower elevationsMay – JulySunMedium to moistwhite1 to few stems, 10-36” tall  Prairies and moist woodlands, NE
Penstemon versicolor Variable-colored beardtongue5,000- 8,000’May, JuneSunDrySky- blue to lavender1 to few stems, 10-14” tallArkansas River Valley in CO
Penstemon virens5,000- 11,000’Late May to JulySun to part shadeDry, pine duffLight blueMat with one to a few stems to 10” tallFoothills under pines and in rocky crevices in C CO
Penstemon whippleanus Whipple’s penstemon8,000- 13,000’July-August (June to September)Sun to part shadeWell-drained, rocky to organic, moist soils Deep wine- purple to cream.Clustered stems, 1-3’ x  2’Widespread on open slopes, meadows, woodlands, subalpine in W and C CO
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