Thursday, April 15, 2010

Earth Day Shout-out to the All-American Penstemon

With Earth Day only a week away, it is time to talk about our local environment again. In my previous post, I gave some thoughts on the use of native plants. One family of plants I’d like to highlight is the wonderful flowers known as penstemons. Penstemons are truly American plants, having evolved on this continent. There is some debate as to which botanical family to place them in. Most references put them in the family Scrophulariacaea, but Wikepedia has them in the family Plantaginaceae. I’m not a trained botanist, so I’ll leave the debate to them, but I generally consider them in Scrophulariaceae for what it is worth.

Penstemons are snapdragon like flowers of which many are stunningly beautiful. They have co-evolved with insects and other pollinators of North America. Many penstemons are red, and clearly co-evolved with that unique American bird, the hummingbird. As a hummingbird lover, I’ve planted plenty of wonderful red penstemons such as P. rostriflorus, P. barbatus, P. eatonii, P. cardinalis, P. pinifolius, and P. subulatus. Pink varieties such as P. pseudospectabilis and P. parryi are also good hummingbird magnets.

Many penstemons utilize insects for pollination, and many of them are the most strikingly beautiful penstemons. P. cyananthus (Wasatch penstemon), P. palmeri, P. strictus, P. angustifolius and P. grandiflorus are among the pantheon of beautiful insect pollinated species. Bumblebees in particular like several of these species. P. palmeri, with it’s big pink snapdragon like flowers fit a bumblebee just perfectly. I’ve seen many small butterflies take a real liking to diminutive penstemons such as P. rydberghi, P. procerus and P. virens.

Because penstemons evolved on this continent, their co-evolvers in the animal kingdom utilize these flowers liberally and they are wonderful plants to add to your garden if your intent is to attract different types of wildlife to your yard. I’ve also seen birds eat penstemon seeds, particularly during the cold winter months, so leave some penstemons standing through the snowy winter months.

Some considerations regarding penstemons that you should know. First, they can be difficult to germinate depending on the species. Many need cold treatment for a month or two in order to break the seeds out of dormancy. Also, most penstemons don’t like getting too much water. Penstemons and petunias tend not to make good bed fellows. Soil needs to be fairly well-drained. It also takes some patience with penstemons, because many don’t bloom their first year. They also aren’t as available as other flowers, primarily because they take more effort to grow. But for those willing to make the effort, it is truly worth it.

So you want to be a real American? Grow American. Try some penstemons. The critters will thank you, as will your eyes.

(Photo Notes)
Top Photo- Penstemon cyananthus (Wasatch Penstemon)
Bottom Photo- Penstemon rostriflorus among roses, the hummingbird's favorite flower in my yard.

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