With growing interest in more sustainable gardening practices, gardeners are looking for plants that are more adaptable to our climate and require less water, fertilizer and maintenance. In many cases they have to look no further than the wildlands around us for some of the best candidates.
One of the most colorful but underutilized natives is the penstemon family. Anyone who has traveled in the region has seen these wildflowers growing along roadsides or on mountain ledges in shades of blue, purple, pink and red.
Penstemons are a good choice for a lower water landscape because many of them thrive in a wide range of drier, rocky sites where other plants don’t grow well. In the wild, the nearly 300 species grow from the cold Arctic to hot tropical environments of Central America.
Beyond their adaptability, penstemons have a wide range of growth habits, which means they can thrive in all parts of the garden from borders to background plantings. Some grow as tight groundcovers, others as mounds and as small, 1- to 2-foot-tall clumps of plants up to 3- to 4-foot-tall specimens. Their leaves can vary from fine to fairly wide.
Penstemon flowers are clusters or spikes of tubular flowers with a hairy lower lip that serves as a guide path for pollinators such as bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. The hairy lip gives the plant its common name of beardstongue. Depending on the species, the plants bloom from midspring to fall. Most species from our area are hardy down to “zone 3,” one of the colder regions outlined on a U.S. Department of Agriculture map of temperature zones across the country.
The biggest challenge to growing is not to spoil them. They like a well-drained, somewhat gravelly soil and moderate watering; overwatering will quickly kill them. They don’t like much fertilizer. Most prefer open, sunny locations with room to spread. They tend to be short-lived plants living three to five years but do reseed themselves under the right conditions. Be bold and experiment a bit to see what works for you.
Finding the plants may be a bit of a challenge. Several local specialty nurseries, including Tower Perennial Gardens and Desert Jewels Nursery, carry a good selection. Online, High Country Gardens offers several varieties. Regardless of where you buy them though, choose carefully. Many of the showy hybrids that may seem more appealing are bred from species from Mexico and other warmer climates that are not winter-hardy here.
Now, a word of caution and courtesy. Don’t try digging plants from the wild. They have adapted to their space and sent roots far and wide. You are not going to be able to get enough of them to allow the plant to survive in your garden. Leave them there for others to enjoy and find a local nursery that sells them.