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Mad About Penstemons

Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii)

Every winter season, I eagerly await the appearance of the first flowering spike of my firecracker penstemons as they begin 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.

Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi)

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.

‘Santa Margarita Foothill’ Penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus)

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.

Parry’s penstemon alongside angelita daisy.

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.

Rock Penstemon (Penstemon bahccharifolius)

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.

Palmer’s Penstemon (Penstemon palmeri)

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.


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6 comments on “Mad About Penstemons

  1. Denise Leigh

    Hi Noelle,
    These are beautiful when blooming but how do they look over the summer? Do they stay green or dry up until spring again?

    • Noelle Johnson

      Great question, Denise. Once they are finished blooming, the flowering spikes are pruned off and you are left with a green clump of leaves. I recommend planting penstemon near warm-season flowering plants so that once the penstemon fades into the background, there are new blooms to take center stage.

      I hope that this helps to answer your question.

  2. Sharon McAvoy

    Hi Noelle,
    I love the penstemons you have highlighted and I have a Parry’s in my garden. Can you tell me if there is a local source (in the Phoenix area) for the Palmer’s, and Santa Margarita penstemon? I’m very fond of blue 🙂

    • Noelle Johnson

      Hello Sharon,

      The Desert Botanical Garden’s spring and fall plant sales are the best sources I know of for penstemon. They may have Palmer’s, but I haven’t seen Santa Margarita there. You may want to check High Country Gardens, which is a mailorder nursery that carries a number of different penstemons –

  3. Palmer’s Penstemon has been one of my dream plants for a while. Last fall, I added one into my hottest, driest garden, and so far it looks happy. In areas that receive more water, I have Rocky Mountain Blue (Pestemon strictus). Beautiful! Hardy and reliable.

    Two other favorites here in my Colorado garden are hot pink Penstemon pseudospectabilis and Electric Blue (Penstemon heterophyllus). They love the hot sun and well drained soil.

    Thanks for the great article. Looking forward to living in New Mexico.

    • Noelle Johnson

      Hi Sarah,

      Thankfully, your penstemons should also do well in your new home in New Mexico. Two things that I love about my Palmer’s penstemon are its tall height and fragrance.

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