It has only been in the past five years or so that I had ever heard of penstemon. They are known as the beardtongues because they look to be sticking out their hairy tongues at you. Actually the “tongue” is the unusual fifth stamen (hence penta stamen). They also have five lobes or petals—two at the top and three at the lower lip—that are fused into a cup. So five is pretty important to them. Thought to mean gentle courage and risks of the heart, penstemon are related to snapdragon—an annual plant that I have loved since childhood.
There are over 250 species of penstemon, most native to the American West though they can be found in just about every state. Around my neck of the woods (New York) there are plenty around. I first discovered and decided to plant penstemon when I found penstemon digitalis at our local plant store. (Penstemon digitalis is also known as Mississippi penstemon, smooth white beardtongue, talus slope penstemon and foxglove beardtongue.) Foxglove (digitalis) is one of the few plants that the deer do not reliably eat because they are poisonous. So I figured penstemon digitalis would actually survive in our garden. And survive it did!
Penstemon will swallow up my entire garden (and adjacent lawn) if I am not careful. I planted just three plants and within a year they had quadrupled at least. They sow themselves with ease and I can almost hear them as if they were little children delighting in their carefree behavior, cheerily running around the yard. I have kept them at bay and confined to half of one of my two flower gardens that gets full sun. I must have hundreds if I were to count them. The drifts of the beauties are stunning for many weeks in late May and all of June and into July. I love that some of the plants have red stems while other green.
On a recent trip to our farmer’s market I was fortunate to get another species—this one a lovely lavender shade. I planted it in the garden near the road that has no penstemon digitalis and could use something to fill it in some. Penstemon is aggressive enough to fit the bill.
After speaking with the farmer who sold us the plant, I surmised that the weed I have been seeing near my patio shade garden is perhaps some type of wild penstemon. However, I have been unable to identify the sweet white-flowers (yes those are five lobes, each shaped as if they were two) with five purple stamen housed in what I think is an enlarged green receptacle. It reminds me of the shape of a bellflower before it blooms. If anyone knows what it is, please do tell!
Because you can get penstomen in red, white and blue, the flower is perfect to honor the fourth of July. Happy 4th everyone!
What types of penstemon do you have? Please share with us!
The Bloom is not a Bloom
By Bai Juyi
The bloom is not a bloom, the mist not mist,
At midnight she comes, and goes again at dawn.
She comes like a spring dream- how long will she stay?
She goes like morning cloud, without a trace.