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Bring on the penstemons

M.G. Gallagher

EAGLE COUNTY – Penstemons continue to gain much-deserved use throughout the valley. This versatile and carefree genus has selections for most garden situations, particularly varieties for areas under regular watering, in addition to those that are known for their drought-tolerant qualities.The penstemon barbatus species provides the base for a number of named varieties. Also called “improved hybrids,” this does not necessarily mean that it is better. My favorite, penstemon barbatus, is the species. Yet some of its good characteristics have been passed on in interesting ways to some great varieties. “Elfin Pink” is gaining popularity not only for its brighter pink (with a touch of coral) flowers, but for its long flowering period and its tolerance for more water than some other penstemons. It is a barbatus hybrid, but it is much shorter and sturdier than its species origin. If you can find it, “Iron Maiden” is a late-flowering barbatus hybrid. It has scarlet flowers, similar to the species, but it flowers more prolifically. It also is more compact than p. barbatus. “Rondo” and other barbatus hybrid mixes share compactness and sturdiness, and fit right in with other penstemons.”Scarlet Bugler,” “Beardlip,” “Golden Beard” penstemon and the many names for penstemon barbatus, the species, do credit to a striking American wildflower. One of the mentioned qualities of the species is its long flowering period, longer than most. Its bright scarlet blossoms are essential for the blue and red garden, which is also a component of good Southwest color for landscapes. We have noted the penstemon barbatus, eatonii, and pinifolius combination gives a long display of bright red, and is a great trio to include with perennial salvias like “May Night,” “Blue Queen,” and with the blue perennial veronicas (veronica spicata and spicata incana remain my favorites for use in this region).P. barbatus favors more heat, light and drought than its offspring hybrids. Too much shade or water cause legginess. It is more fragile in this state, too.From most of what I have read, the p. mexicali hybrids are probably hardy to a slightly warmer zone than the various penstemons in use at the east end of the Vail Valley. I haven’t run across any up in Vail, but if I find out, I’ll pass it on. For Eagle through Dotsero, they excel, along with many other penstemon species and hybrids.A true gem that has blown in from our neighbor state, or from the Wildflower Farm in Edwards, is Wasatch penstemon, now naturalizing in the area. This beautiful and quite compatible (good for the environment) Utah native is an incredible medium-sky blue, one of the truest blues of species penstemons. Among penstemons that are available commercially, this is easily among the top three underused penstemons, let alone perennials, in the Southwest.Alpine penstemon is another blue, and it is hardy at altitudes that many aren’t.Last, but not least today, is our standby flagship county native, penstemon strictus. Striking plantings of Rocky Mountain penstemon include the entrance to Mountain Star at the bottom of Buck Creek Road, and the penstemon roundabout by Wal-Mart. It and other penstemons also dot I-70.P. strictus is another long-flowering penstemon, but it starts and finishes earlier than late- and long-season penstemons like barbatus. It also seems to turn earlier in higher heat, as the Wal-Mart penstemons have a different season that the Buck Creek collection. Strictus also is an adaptable species, tolerating drought and regular water. Partial shade seems to extend its flowering period noticeably.Penstemons are easy to grow, not mammal dinner favorites, and many reseed (not weedy), giving freebies and increasing the group. Its vertical addition to the landscape is important from a design standpoint, let alone a color feature. It is wildlife friendly, and just before writing this, I went to the window and watched a hummingbird have breakfast at my own penstemon and agastache group.M.G. Gallagher writes a column about plants and landscaping in the mountain zones.Vail Colorado


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