Friday, June 11, 2010

What's In A Name?

One of the obstacles to the introduction of native plants into the commercial marketplace is the common names that many are chained to. Otherwise beautiful plants have had words like weed, wort (not wart but still…), flea, and snake, indiscriminately tacked on to their names. One of my most hated is the name beardtongue. I have had a beard on my tongue before (it was my own) and it wasn’t pleasant.

Although some still use the name beardtongue, there are many who have resorted to the much preferable genus name of penstemon. Penstemons are among my favorite spring-blooming perennials. Utah is rumored to have the highest concentration of native growing penstemons in the world. Whether or not this is true for Utah, it is certainly true for the western United States. These resilient flowers have adapted to life in dry climates. Waxy leaves, often blue-green in color, and fleshy roots help the penstemon to flourish in the spring, creating magnificent displays of color. Although a few penstemons will continue to bloom into late-spring and summer, most have adapted to do most of their business in the spring taking the rest of the year off to recuperate. Many of them will die back to a small rosette by mid-summer.

Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) is one of my favorites. There are a few native penstemons that you would hike right past without realizing they were there. That is not the case with Firecracker Penstemon. It boasts long stems with bright red tubular shaped flowers that are very distinct. It is easy to grow and quickly becomes established.

Another native that is quite popular is Palmer Penstemon (Penstemon palmeri) which is just about the tallest penstemon, growing up to 4 to 5 feet high. Beautiful large pink flowers make it a show stopper. Most penstemons can be short lived, but this one will only last three to five years, especially in heavy soils. However, if you let it go to seed, it will reproduce a good number of offspring.

Of all the penstemons, the one that seems to last longest in the landscape is Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus). It reaches a maximum height of 18 inches to 2 feet and produces deep blue tubular flowers. ‘Midnight Blue’ is a newer variety of Rocky Mountain Penstemon that seems to have a more reliable and longer lasting flower.

Rondo Mix and Navigator Mix Penstemons are two groups of penstemons that flower quite profusely in shades of purples, pinks, reds and whites.

There are many more penstemons that I love, and wish I had room to detail all their virtues. Be assured, they will add greatly to any garden in the spring and they are much nicer than facial hair in your mouth.