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The obliging penstemons.

The obliging penstemons

Among the West's gems are the obliging, floriferous penstemons. This group of perennials includes about 270 species, most of which are native to the Western states. You can bring some of these into your garden by sowing seeds now or setting out nursery plants later this month or next.

You'll be rewarded with a showy display of blooms next spring and early summer, followed by sporadic bloom until frost. As cut flowers, they last four to five days, although flower spikes will shed a few older blooms daily.

Penstemons range in size from ground-hugging alpine types that stay 3 to 4 inches high, through midsize varieties that reach 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 feet, up to showy tall kinds that peak at 3 to 5 feet. All have trumpet flowers 1/2 inch to 2 inches long, and come in shades of pink, red, rose, peach, purple, lilac, lavender, blue, yellow, or white. Blooms are clustered on upright spikes on the taller species, or blanket the foliage of the minis. Larger flowers often have contrasting markings in the throat.

Penstemons grow wild in cold mountain climates, hot desert environments, and mild coastal areas. In general, you will have the most reliable success if you plant those native to your own climate--usually the ones local nurseries carry--but others may adapt well. Many mail-order catalogs provide information on the native habitats of the varieties they offer. (For a list of sources, and for information on starting penstemons from seed, see page 199.) You can also learn more about the plants by joining the American Penstemon Society (see page 199).

Depending on care and climate, penstemon plants last five years or longer. Disappointing bloom usually signals that it's time to replace the plants. Most self-sow readily and are easy to propagate from cuttings. To promote self-sowing, scatter seeds from mature flower stalks as pictured at right. Wait until the seed pods are just starting to open. You can also take advantage of many varieties' tendency to lean over and root new plants from stems trailing on the ground.

In general, penstemons do best in a spot with full sun and excellent drainage. In hottest desert areas, you can also grow them in part shade. They tend to rot if soil is too soggy. With too much water or not enough sun, growth will be weak. To keep blooms coming, cut spent flower stalks below the lowest blossoms. During the growing season, apply about half the fertilizer you use on other perennials.

Most shorties like to shiver

If you live in a cold-winter area, you can have great success with the charming low-growing mountain or alpine penstemons, such as the tiny P. crandallii shown on the opposite page, lower right. These small kinds are quite hardy and will come back after a snowy winter. However, they don't always bloom reliably in milder climates, since they don't get enough winter chill to promote next summer's bloom.

An excellent low grower that adapts to a wider range of climates is P. pinifolius, often available in nurseries in the fall. It produces small red blooms 1 1/2 inches long on upright 4- to 6-inch spikes. Plants are shrubby and spreading, with short needle-like leaves.

Midsize varieties for every region

No matter where you live, you can find a midsize penstemon to suit your climate. One striking variety available at many nurseries is P. heterophyllus purdyi "Blue Bedder'. This does well in all but coldest-winter areas. Borne on 1 1/2-foot stalks, its small flowers range in color from pale to bright blue. "Walker Ridge' produces similar blooms on a more shrub-like plant.

Another popular midsize for all but coldest areas is P. azureus, with yellow buds that open up as deep blue-purple blooms on stems 1 to 2 feet tall.

Penstemon barbatus hybrids are quite hardy but also do well in mild-winter areas. Favorites include red "Prairie Fire', purple "Prairie Dusk', and "Elfin Pink'. Bloom spikes reach 2 1/2 feet. Similar in growth habits and adaptability are the popular Utah hybrids.

Widely sold desert penstemons include P. parryi, shown at far left, firecracker penstemon (P. eatonii) with red blooms, and P. palmeri with fragrant pink blooms.

For showiest flowers, tall border types

Border penstemons, also called garden penstemons (P. gloxinioides), produce the largest flowers on spikes that range from 2 to 4 feet tall. These are a good choice for growing alongside other garden flowers, since they tolerate more water and heavier soil than most other penstemons do. Look for them at nurseries.

Some popular varieties include the brilliant red "Firebird', purple "Midnight', "Holly's White', "Garent', and "Ruby King', as well as the Giant Floradale series and Skyline mix.

Photo: Tall-growing border penstemons create colorful show in Marde Ross's Palo Alto garden (above). Gardener at right holds bouquet of pink and red border penstemons mixed with small blue blooms of "Blue Bedder'

Photo: Petite varieties include pink-flowered P. cardwellii "Roseus' (left), growing on slope above retaining wall in Portland. Seedlings of P. crandallii procumbens (right) produce tiny blue blooms. Ultimately, plants will reach 4 to 6 inches tall, spread 18 inches

Photo: A midsize penstemon, 2 1/2-foot-tall P. parryi produces reliable color through spring and summer in this Phoenix garden

Photo: Shaking mature seed heads over her garden, Karen Kees of Poway, California, helps multiply her penstemons
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Sep 1, 1986
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