Plant Penstemons for Pollinators

Plant penstemons in your perennial pollinator garden, they’ll add beauty and will attract many pollinators. These plants are easy to care for, low maintenance, and great for drought conditions. Also known as “beardtongue,” these pretty plants have a unique look and are a nice addition to any yard. Just ask the bees! 

Mason bees are wonderfully productive pollinators, learn all about them here

Contributed by Jodi Torpey 

White penstemon flowers with purple markings.

A Perfect Pollinator Plant

Gardeners are always on the lookout for ways to grow beautiful flowers that are low-maintenance, can survive in poor soil, and thrive under tough weather conditions.

Penstemons are a big group of plants that fit that description. These colorful perennials, also called beardtongues, are easy to grow and prefer poor soil and little precipitation.

Penstemons are perennial drought tolerant plants known for their colorful flowers and ability to grow in dry or xeriscape gardens, rock gardens, meadows, and other kinds of low-maintenance gardens. They typically do well in semi-arid and harsh climates.

The common name beardtongue refers to the ornamental flowers that grow in masses on upright stems. The blooms are two-lipped tubular flowers that attract bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, and moths. Because of the shape of the flowers, they make perfect pollinator plants.

Flowers range from white and yellow to pink, red, blue, and many shades of purple.

The tubular shape of penstemon flowers make them a favorite for hummingbirds.

Penstemon flowers grow in late spring through summer and can vary in height from several inches to several feet tall depending on the variety. The plants grow in rosettes of green foliage before shooting up their tall spikes of colorful flowers. Plants range in sizes from 6 inches to several feet tall.

Many penstemons prefer dry gardens or places where other ornamental perennials won’t grow. Because there are more than 250 varieties of penstemon, you’re sure to find some to fit into your landscape. Hardiness zones range from 2-8.

Most penstemons are easy to care for because they prefer lean soils, with little to no fertilizing and no extra irrigation. While not all varieties are drought tolerant, most need soil to dry between waterings.

Planning a deer resistant garden? Put some penstemon on the planting list! Nothing is deer PROOF, but those four-legged pests will often pass by the glossy green foliage of penstemon.

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Close up of a purple penstemon.

5 Popular Penstemon Varieties

When choosing these hardy perennial flowers to add to your landscape, be sure to read the planting information and follow the best practices for growing. When matched to the plant’s preferred conditions, penstemons will thrive in the garden. If you stagger bloom times among varieties, you’ll be able to create a garden that flowers through the season.

Prairie Jewel penstemon (Penstemon grandifloras) is an especially hardy plant that grows 20-36 inches tall with sturdy stalks with white to pink flowers.

Pagoda penstemon (Penstemon angustifolius) is an evergreen variety that grows bright blue flowers in gardens or containers; grows to about 12 inches tall.

Pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) is a small bushy plant with needle-like evergreen foliage with bright orange-red flowers; grows to about 12 inches tall.

A cluster of purple penstemon flowers.

Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is a tall plant with evergreen, purplish foliage and spikes of small purple-blue flowers; grows to 24 inches tall.

Red Rocks penstemon (Penstemon mexicali) has narrow, dark green leaves, 15-inch stems, and cherry red flowers that bloom in late summer and fall.


 

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How to Grow Penstemon (Beardtongue)

Penstemons thrive in hotter and drier conditions that make other ornamental plants wilt. Locate a sunny spot in the garden that gets full sun or partial shade. Because they are water-wise plants, they prefer well-drained, average garden soil. Most actually prefer poor soil because they don’t need much fertilizer and roots can rot if kept in wet, heavy soils.

Wait until the danger of frost has passed before planting. Dig planting holes slightly larger than the root ball and place them at the same level it was in the container. Follow planting instructions for spacing plants based on their mature size.

Water in to help roots start to grow. Gravel or rock mulch is a better choice than bark mulch.

Burgundy flowers.

Requirements for Growing Penstemon

Penstemons are ornamental plants that can grow well with little precipitation and in a range of temperatures. The most important factor in growing these tough plants is to make sure the soil drains well, especially in winter.

If you live in an area with wet weather, consider planting penstemons on berms or in raised beds to help water drain quickly away from plant roots.

After plants finish blooming, deadhead to help with reblooming later in the season. To deadhead, remove the dead flowers with sharp pruners at the point where the flower spike meets the first set of leaves or you may cut all the flower spikes to a few inches above the ground.

Soil Requirements

Most varieties of penstemons can do well in unimproved soils, but drainage is very important. These plants prefer porous, sandy loamy soil that’s lean instead of well-amended. Some types of penstemon grow best in rocky or gravelly soils that dry between waterings. These plants don’t like to have their roots sitting in moist soils, especially in winter.

Light Requirements

Penstemon plants like a full-sun location, but can tolerate some shade in areas with extremely hot summers.

Fertilizer and Water Requirements

Penstemons won’t need supplemental fertilizing in most soils. Excessive fertilizer may cause problems for plants such as weak, leggy growth that needs support. Sometimes a spot application of a balanced fertilizer may give plants a boost.

Avoid overwatering penstemon plants by giving them deep and less frequent watering, if needed during times of drought. Water when plants are getting established in the garden, but allow the soil to dry slightly between waterings.

Penstemon flowers growing.

Preventing Growing Problems

Overwatering presents the biggest issue when growing penstemons. Soggy soils can lead to crown and root rot when plants are grown in poorly drained soils. Prevent this problem by planting penstemons in soil that drains well.

Another potential problem when growing penstemons is leaf spot. Leaf spot is caused by fungi that attack the foliage. Avoid leaf spot by watering at soil level only, keeping leaves dry, and by removing all dead foliage at the end of the season.

When plants become overcrowded, restricted airflow can lead to plant diseases. Avoid overcrowding by dividing and replanting penstemons when needed.

Growing in Containers

Penstemons make good container plants if you follow the old adage of “the right plant in the right place.” Select varieties that are known to grow well in containers, like Pagoda, which grows to about 12 inches tall.

Make sure containers have enough drainage holes in the bottom and fill with a potting mix meant for container growing. Some potting soils meant for cactus and succulent plants might be a good option to help with drainage for some varieties.

In areas with freezing winter temperatures, protect containers from extreme temperature fluctuations and windy weather.

Red penstemon flowers close up.

Propagating Penstemons

For some varieties of penstemons, propagating is easy because seed heads left on plants over winter may self-seed in the garden and grow the next season. These volunteers can be transplanted in spring to other places around the garden.

You can also plant penstemon seeds in late fall in the garden to give them time in the ground before they start growing in spring.

Another penstemon propagation method is to plant seeds in cold frames in spring to give them a start on growing and then transplant them to the garden when the weather and soil are warm for planting.

collage of purple and red penstemon flowers

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About the author: Kris Bordessa is an award-winning National Geographic author and a certified Master Food Preserver. If you want to send Kris a quick message, you can get in touch here.

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