JoAnne Skelly: Penstemons: quite forgiving and easy to grow

Palmers penstemon

Palmers penstemon

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Last week I wrote that hummingbirds love penstemons. Well, so do I. My friend Julie gave me some deep purple penstemon transplants a few weeks ago that are already blooming, even after a bit of transplant shock. She told me this penstemon species, possibly “Rocky Mountain,” reseeds readily, so I’m looking forward to having many more of them in the yard in the future.
I find penstemons quite forgiving and easy to grow. My pale pink Palmer’s penstemons are almost 30 inches tall and have a lovely rose scent. While the Palmers need almost no water, I’ve been watering the Rocky Mountain transplants so that they will establish well.
My colleague at University of Nevada, Extension, Heidi Kratsch, has done a lot of research on penstemons. She says there are 51 native species in Nevada. Some penstemons grow for two to three years, while others may live longer than that. They have a diversity of flower colors and usually are in peak bloom in June and July. With their tubular flowers, they are not only attractive to hummingbirds, but to native pollinators as well. Firecracker penstemons have bright red flowers, which really attract hummingbirds.
Penstemons grow in a variety of habitats. If you hike either here in the valleys or in the mountains, you will see many species and colors of native penstemons. Some species are small and mat-forming. Others may reach five feet tall. Most thrive in full sun in fast-draining, often infertile, soils. I have had some reseed and grow in our gravel driveway. Other than cutting back the stems after flowering, to encourage repeat blooms, they need little pruning. However, I don’t cut my flower stems back until after they have produced seed and the seed pods have almost completely dried. Then, I cut the stalks down, put them in a paper bag, and later, when the pods have opened, I spread the seeds where I want more plants to grow.
These drought-tolerant plants are good choices for most home landscapes as long as you don’t overwater. Native species are available, as are hybrids. Another benefit is that because they are herbaceous rather than woody, they are low fire hazard plants. This means they are good plant choices within 30 feet of the house. In addition, attracting pollinators is good for ecosystem diversity and for good pollination of fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
For extensive information, here is the link to Heidi Kratsch’s publication on penstemons:
JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator Emerita at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Email


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