As diverse as this group of plants is, they all share some common characteristics. The genus Penstemon contains over 250 species from North America and Mexico. In each flower only four true stamens (pollen bearing structures) are present, despite the Greek derivation pente, five and stemon, stamen. American garden books call them ‘Beard Tongues’, referring to a hairy surface on the staminode (the reduced fifth stamen) within each flower, and on the lower lip of the corolla. We horticulturists are accustomed to ‘oral’ references in the description of flowers…teeth, throat, tongue, etc. Without digressing any further, let me say that I’ve never heard anybody ask if we have any Beard Tongues for sale. It’s just Penstemon

Penstemon-'Dark-Towers' - Illustration by Helen KrayenhoffSome species, like P. pinifolius are ground-huggers from dry washes. Some, such as P. pseudospectabilis are native to California deserts. Others are alpine in origin, requiring a rocky soil and excellent drainage. One example is P. newberryi (Mountain Pride), whose bright pink flowers can be seen sprouting from scree and granite crevices at high elevations in our Sierra Nevada. This and the other alpine species won’t appreciate being planted in our Bay Area clay and are best left to container culture. 

On the other hand, a huge group of garden hybrids exists under the ‘technically inaccurate’ heading of Penstemon gloxinioides. There are dozens of colors, sizes, and shapes to choose from here, though most bear large flowers on 2- to 3-foot-tall racemes. These plants stand out in my mind primarily for the late summer spectacle they provide, but also as dependable border subjects where conditions are not extremely hot and dry. Come take a look at what’s available in our gallon Sun Perennial section. For patient, more budget-minded shoppers, our 4” pots are only $6.95. 

These garden perennials gained notoriety as bedding plants in English-style borders, and in smaller cottage garden settings. We enjoy almost 6 months of bloom here in the Bay Area, from April (if already established) through September. Care is easy if you follow the basics for most non-woody perennials: cut back and divide in fall, feed in spring, and groom in summer. 

Now is the best time for planting as we anticipate fall rains.  

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