Penstemon – June Plant of the Month

Penstemon is the June Plant of the Month. Also known as beardtongue, penstemon is one of the most diverse genus of plants in North America. With 240 species alone in North America, there is a lot of potential for hybridization as well as nativar selection. Here in the Central Great Plains region, we have only 8 species. That is not many!

But, thanks to breeding programs and plant enthusiasts, we have a wide variety of penstemon available for home gardens and landscapes. Of all the plants blooming in June, why pick penstemon? Well, penstemon is hardy and adaptable, drought tolerant, sun loving, pollinator friendly, and very showy in the garden.

Penstemon is Tough

While travelling Kansas with members of the Kansas Native Plant Society (KNPS) I have seen penstemon growing in some very tough conditions. Although I have not seen any wetland type penstemons, there certainly might be some in other parts of the country. One of the members of KNPS, Craig Freeman has studied and written books on the penstemons of North America.

In my own gardens, and those of my clients, I plant penstemons and expect them to perform in tough spots. And they do. If you have a dry spot that needs some great, long-lasting color, plant a penstemon.

They grow best in full, direct sunlight, but can stand some partial shade, as long as they get at least 6 hours of sun. Also, they have shown to be salt tolerant, after planting along sidewalks and patios.

Pollinators of Penstemons

One of the most interesting flowers, which are tubular, penstemons attract a lot of pollinators, especially bumblebees. Hummingbirds and other bees also spend a lot of time among these flowers. As far as being a host plant for pollinators, 9 or so moths and 1 butterfly use various penstemons for their larval stage.

pollinators on penstemons
Bees pollinating penstemons

Penstemon in the Garden

Because there is so much variety within the genus, there is a lot of variety available to gardeners. Almost every garden center carries at least one cultivar of penstemon. Flower colors can be pink, red, white, purple, yellow, blue, or orange. That is a lot of variety to choose from!

I really like the purple and blue cultivars. Also, there are several with dark purple foliage and either white or pink flowers. These are standouts in the garden and can be planted in masses or small groups for best effect.

Cultivars

There are several great cultivars for plants that will grow well in Zones 5 to 7, in the Central Great Plains. Most cultivars grow 2 to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide.

  • ‘Husker Red’ – has green leaves with dark, reddish stems and white flowers. It is very prolific and will reseed easily.
  • ‘Dark Towers – dark, burgundy leaves and stems with light pink flowers.
  • ‘Onyx & Pearls’ – dark, burgundy leaves and stems with pure white flowers.
  • ‘Prairie Dusk’ – has green leaves and stems with lavender flowers.
  • ‘Red Rocks’ – bright green leaves and stems with electric pink flowers.
  • ‘Cherry Sparks’ – has green leaves and stems with cherry red flowers.
  • ‘Red Riding Hood’ – has green leaves and stems with small, tubular red flowers.
  • ‘Pike’s Peak’ – has green leaves and stems with bright purple flowers.
penstemon cultivars

Companion Plants for Beardtongue

Because penstemons love heat and drought, you should plant them together with other heat and drought lovers. There are a variety of North American natives, and nativars, which pair well with these plants. Following is a list of 10 plants that go well with penstemon.

  1. Butterfly milkweed
  2. Coneflowers (Echinacea species)
  3. Blanketflower
  4. False Sunflower
  5. Blazingstars
  6. Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’
  7. Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’
  8. Baptisia
  9. Purple Prairie Clover
  10. Mountain Mint

Conclusion

Penstemons should be a part of full sun garden in the Central Great Plains, if not the western United States. There are several species for our area as well as the rest of the country. The sheer amount of flower color variety should be enough of a reason to pick at least one for your garden.

Happy planting!

author of penstemon

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