Every winter season, I eagerly await the appearance of the first flowering spike of my firecracker penstemon as it begins to unfurl in my low-desert garden, adding welcome color. Hummingbirds arrive soon afterward, reaching their long tongues to sip the nectar inside each trumpet-shaped blossom.
While it’s easy to be fooled by the fragile beauty of penstemons, they are extremely hardy plants that can handle the 110+ temperatures of the low desert and minus 30 degrees F temperatures, depending on the species. There are more than 280 different species of penstemon, which are native to the western half of North America. These lovely perennials flourish in dry climates, making them an excellent choice for drought-tolerant gardens.
Most penstemon species, also referred to as ‘beardtongue,’ are characterized by spikes with loose, tubular blooms that flare out at the ends, which emerge from a base of elongated leaves. Available in many different colors, including pink, purple, red, blue, and even yellow, there is a penstemon color for every taste. More than 300 new types of penstemon have been added through the years by plant breeders who strive to create new varieties.
Penstemon is most at home in a landscape with a natural theme, planted among wildflowers, next to boulders, or intermixed with other water-wise perennials such as blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum) and angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis). In areas with mild winters, blooms begin in late winter and extend into spring. When grown in colder climates, penstemon blooms in late spring into summer, depending on the species.
Well-drained soil and full sun are two factors critical in growing penstemon successfully. Local nurseries and botanical garden plant sales are the best sources for transplants and penstemon can also be started from seed. Water well and then allow the soil to dry out before watering again.
There are five species of penstemon growing in my low desert garden including firecracker, Palmer’s, Parry’s, and Santa Margarita penstemon. My newest addition is rock penstemon, which unlike my other species, blooms through summer. I am always on the lookout for new types of penstemon to try and encourage you to try some in your garden.