penstemon-eatonii

Mad About Penstemons

Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii)

Penstemon are a type of flowering perennial that do very well in arid climates. There are many different varieties, which handle the intense heat and also cold winters in the Southwest. So, whether you live in the low-desert or mountain regions, there is a penstemon for you.

Every winter season, SWG’s Noelle Johnson awaits the appearance of the first flowers of her penstemon in her Phoenix-area garden. As early as November, her firecracker penstemon begins to bloom much to the delight of the hummingbirds in her neighborhood.

Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi)

The blooms of penstemon are so lovely and give them a delicate appearance. However, don’t be fooled by their fragile beauty – this is one tough plant! In fact, they do best when given little attention.

They are hardy perennials that handle 110+ temperatures of the low desert and -30 degrees F temperatures of cold winter temperatures. There are many to choose from with over 280 species of penstemon native to the western half of North America.

‘Santa Margarita Foothill’ Penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus)

Most species have loose, tubular blooms that flare out at the ends as they emerge from a base of elongated leaves. If you like color in the garden, penstemon comes in a variety of colors including pink, purple, red, blue, and even yellow. As you can see, there is a penstemon color for everyone!

Parry’s penstemon alongside angelita daisy.

Penstemon look best in landscapes with a natural theme – among wildflowers or next to boulders. Noelle mixes hers 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. Penstemon in colder climates they bloom in late spring into summer, depending on the species.

Rock Penstemon (Penstemon bahccharifolius)

Well-drained soil and full sun are two factors critical for growing penstemon successfully. Local nurseries and botanical garden plant sales are usually the best sources for transplants. Penstemon can also be started from seed.

To care for them properly, water them to a depth of 16″ and allow the soil to dry out for a week before watering again.

Palmer’s Penstemon (Penstemon palmeri)

Firecracker, Palmer’s, Parry’s, and Santa Margarita penstemon grow in Noelle’s low desert garden. We encourage you to try growing one where you live!

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6 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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 🙂
    Thanks,
    Sharon

    • 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 – https://www.highcountrygardens.com

  • Sarah

    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.