JoAnne Skelly: The joy of penstemons

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I was back at my friend Pat’s house this week after seeing her “mini arboretum” last week. This time Pat gave me a guided tour of her plantings.

I noticed she had numerous varieties of penstemon. Last year I wrote that I love penstemons, perennial members of the snapdragon family. They are easy to grow, drought tolerant and they attract pollinators and hummingbirds. They come in beautiful colors. While they are adapted to a wide range of soils, penstemons do best in well-draining soils.

The “Rocky Mountain” penstemons, penstemon strictus, my friend Julie gave me last year are doing well. Pat has these in her garden too. These Nevada natives with their deep purple flower color are beautiful additions to any garden. They are prolific reseeders, offering new plants year after year. Bees are regular visitors and most days I catch a glimpse of a hummingbird gathering nectar from the flowers. They are over two feet tall.

Pat has compact pineleaf penstemons, penstemon pinifolius ‘Compacta’, that grow 10 inches tall by 12 inches wide with fine, almost pine needle-like leaves. Their scarlet flowers attract not only bees and hummers, but also butterflies. While not a native plant, they are rabbit resistant.

Penstemon eatonii, firecracker penstemons, are another bright red flowered variety that are Nevada native plants. They live quite successfully in Pat’s garden. These grow 18 inches to 23 inches tall and 12 inches to 15 inches wide. They are deer- and rabbit-resistant.

Nevada’s Palmer’s penstemons, penstemon palmeri, are covering the hillsides along the highways now with pale pink fragrant flowers on stalks that can reach four feet in height by two feet wide. These are one of the few scented penstemons and they smell like roses.

When I looked penstemons up in the “Nevada Plant List” from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, I counted 53 native penstemons not including subspecies and varieties. When hiking at Tahoe this past week, I noticed red Mountain Pride penstemons, penstemon newberryi, everywhere. These grow in compact masses on rocky slopes including above the roads leading into Tahoe and on slopes at our lower elevation.

I recently saw blue meadow penstemons, penstemon rydbergii in Martis Valley. Blue meadow and whorled penstemons, penstemon heterodoxus, have flowers that are arranged differently from normal clusters along the stems.

The blue-to-blue purple flowers are arranged like wheels on two-inch to eight-inch stems. That’s just naming a few! With their native beauty, diversity, adaptability, and hardiness, you can see why I love penstemons.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Email 


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