Penstemon cardwelliiPenstemon deustusPenstemon venustus

P. cardwellii

P. deustus

P. venustus

Welcome to thePenstemon Website

Home of the Beardtongue

Designed and maintained by Andrea D. Wolfe


What's New
Background Information
About this Site
For the Gardener
Species Sampler (photos and information)
Virtual 2000 APS Meeting in England
Abbreviated Bibliography
About the American Penstemon Society
About Alpine-L
Links of interest to Penstemaniacs

What's New?

13 Sep 00 -- The virtual tour of the 2000 American Penstemon Society Annual Meeting which took place in England July 9 - 13. I've summarize the highlights I remember and have provided a photo album with nearly 200 digital images.

20 Apr 99 -- New pages for P. confusus and P. crandallii under the species sampler section.

9 Apr 99 -- I've added pages for P. ambiguus and P. barbatus. I've recently scanned in a bunch of slides from last field season, so I will continue to add pages over the next few weeks.

The Penstemon website has been reorganized as of July 1998. Instead of loading everything onto this opening page, I've moved the pictures and bibliography sections to separate pages. Just click on the links listed above to go to those particular sections of the website.

I'm also starting a list of links of interest to Penstemaniacs. This section will continue to grow, especially as I find sites that have linked to this one.

I'm in the process of scanning in slides from the past two field seasons. The species section will be expanding dramatically over the next several months. Stay tuned for developments, and thanks for visiting!

Andi Wolfe

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Penstemon is a popular garden ornamental as well as an interesting plant to examine in its native habitats. Its common name, beardtongue, comes from the bearded staminode found in most species. In 1996, the perennial plant of the year was the 'Husker Red' cultivar of P. digitalis introduced by Dr. Dale Lindgren at the University of Nebraska. Many hybrid cultivars of Penstemon are sold through garden supply and seed companies.

There is a society dedicated to Penstemon, the American Penstemon Society. Other enthusiasts who enjoy Penstemon are avid rock gardeners. For your convenience, I've included a bibliography on this page to help you find the relevant literature about Penstemon taxonomy. Whether you are a botanist, a gardener, a naturalist, or are just surfing the web, I hope you enjoy this site!

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Background Information:

Penstemon (tribe Cheloneae: Scrophulariaceae) is a large genus (about 275 species) of perennial plants endemic to North America, ranging from Alaska to Guatemala and from coast-to-coast, exclusive of the Canadian shield. It has been divided into six subgenera : subg. Penstemon (eight sections, 22 subsections, ca. 186 spp.), subg. Habroanthus (two sections, 46 spp.), subg. Saccanthera (2 sections, 3 subsections, 26 spp.), subg. Dasanthera (nine spp.), subg. Cryptostemon (monotypic), and subg. Dissecti (monotypic) (taxonomy based on Bennett et al. 1987).

Floral colors include white, yellow (rare), blue, violet, purple, pink, magenta, and red. Corollas can be tubular or funnel shaped. The flowers are pollinated by bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies, and hummingbirds.

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About this Site:

This website includes photographs of some species and links to other pages on Penstemon research (systematics, hybridization, pollen presentation theory). Photographs for the species listed in the tables below are now available. The collection will be expanded in the future (i.e., as I find time to scan my slide collection into Adobe photoshop!).

I will eventually include more information on the cultivation and taxonomy of Penstemon. Look for major changes in the summer of 1998!

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For the Gardener:

Penstemon is growing in popularity for gardeners around the world. Given the proper conditions, it will flourish with little care. Gardeners in the American western regions are in Penstemon nirvana because the choice of native plants amenable to most garden situations is luxuriously large. For those not in the richest distributional range of Penstemon, the choice is still pretty good for native species, cultivars and hybrids.

Some penstemons are suited to some garden settings, but not others (e.g., border vs. rock garden). The following paragraphs are from the American Penstemon Society Manual for Beginners:

"To get the most satisfaction out of penstemons, they should be used in the garden with consideration for their special characteristics. Kinds suited only to a rock garden should not be put in a perennial border with tall-growing plants that will crowd them out or cover them up. Kinds suited for the border are seldom appropriate in a rock garden.

"There are some tall-growing kinds that do not mind being crowded, but the spectacular western and Mexican species need plenty of elbow room. If used in a mixed perennial border at all, they should be given room enough so that other plants will not crowd them. But they look better if put in a special bed with nothing else. They look fine in a long, narrow bed along the driveway or in a hollow square or U-shaped bed or rectangular bed. They make such a display that they are worthy of a bed by themselves. The tall-growing eastern species can stand crowding and can be used in a border without elbow room if desired, but they are usually less colorful than the other kinds.

"The low-growing kinds of penstemons are not appropriate for the border. They fit naturally in the rock garden and are quite beautiful. There we use the types with flowers more suited to close viewing than to making masses of color to be viewed from a distance, and types where foliage is as much a part of the display as the flowers. Rock garden penstemons comprise the low-growing deciduous species and the evergreeens and shrubs. These are mostly wild species, but there are some newly developed hybrids that are low enough for a rock garden.

"If tall penstemons are to be used in a border, it is wise to avoid the kinds that tend to be short-lived. They are apt to die after blooming and leave holes in the border. Or, if short-lived ones are used, they should be kinds that make seedlings for the next year from their own dropped seeds. Kinds that do not do that will have to be raised in a seed bed and set out each year as with bedding plants. If the border is kept mulched, the dropped seed may not germinate so only long-lived kinds should be used. If the plants are grown in a special bed of their own, the seed can be scattered or allowed to drop between the plants, the soil being left bare; and there would be seedlings to take the place of the ones that die. If you do not mind raising seedlings each year for replacement, you may disregard what we have just said about using short-lived kinds in a border.

"In general, penstemons of the border type are more satisfactory when grown in masses rather than individually. One individual plant relied on for a good display may turn out to be disappointing through failure to bloom well, but in a group of a dozen or fifty, the mass effect will be pleasing even if one or two individuals should fail to live up to expectations. Some of the wild species types are not particularly attractive when viewed as a single specimen, but make a beautiful showing when grown in a group. To get a really good display, use fifty or more plants in one bed. It is as easy to raise fifty seedlings as a dozen.

"Certain annual types are used to some extent in public parks in colorful large beds for, once in bloom, they bloom until frost cuts them down. Some of the seed companies such as Park and Burpee offer seeds of such types under names such as 'Giant Floradale' and 'Sensation', etc. They were all developed from a Mexican species and therefore are not hardy in the United States and Canada, except in the south. They are also not suited for use by gardeners who have to plant their seeds outdoors for they take too long to come into bloom and frost usually catches them in most parts of the country. Those who can start them early in the greenhouse or under fluorescent lights can find them very rewarding for they are very colorful with large blooms of many colors. Where the winters are warm and moist, they are not subject to the difficulties mentioned above, and give lots of color with little work.

"For a hot, sunny, dry bank, where few garden flowers will grow well, there are many kinds of penstemons which delight in such a situation. The eastern species are noted for their ability to grow and bloom well in hot, dry places. So do the hybrids that were developed from prairie species.

"Persons who want penstemons for flower arrangements will find that plants grown from a mixture of hybrids will generally provide the best material. Even when the climate is too moist and the stems lean or curl, this in itself is an advantage for arrangements, not a disadvantage. Penstemon flowers on straight stems lend themselves particularly to the upright types of arrangements, those in which you might use gladiolas or snapdragons. Curved or distorted stems are good for the sweeping-curve types of arrangements. The fact that they do not drop many flowers or make a litter is another thing to be said for penstemons in arrangements. Most kinds will keep as long as ten days after being cut, and some even longer. Some, such as P. digitalis or the digitalis X calycosus cross, are excellent in dried arrangements since they hold their seed heads well."

One final note about using Penstemon flowers in arrangements. The books I've read on this suggest searing the stems before use by briefly exposing the cut end of the flowering shoot to a candle flame. As with all cut flowers, it is best to harvest in the morning and condition the stems by soaking them for several hours in warm water. Remove any leaves or bracts that may be below the water line in the arrangement.

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Information about the American Penstemon Society:

Membership in the American Penstemon Society is $10 for US & Canada. Overseas membership is $15, which includes 15 free selections from the Seed Exchange. US life membership is $200.00. Dues are payable in January of each year. Checks or money orders, in US funds only please, are payable to the American Penstemon Society and may be sent to: Ann Bartlett, 1569 S. Holland Ct., Lakewood, CO 80232, USA.

Members receive the American Penstemon Bulletin twice a year and have access to the yearly Seed Exchange. For more information contact the President of the American Penstemon Society: Dale Lindgren, West Central Research Center, Route 4 Box 46A, North Platte NE 69101.

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About Alpine-L, the Electronic Rock Garden Society

Alpine-L is an electronic mailing list sponsored by the Netherlands Botanic Gardens at the University of Utrecht on rock gardening, dwarf and alpine plants, including their botany. Discussions and articles on this and related subjects constitute the major scope of the list, which welcomes both beginners and experts.

To become a member of Alpine-L, send to the command:


For example:

subscribe alpine-L Reginald Farrer, WashingtonDC Z7a NARGS The comma is essential; it causes LISTSERV to alphabetize its list of subscribers alphabetically by surname. If you don't belong to a rock garden club, omit that information; after all, you're about to join Alpine-L, the Electronic Rock Garden Society.

If you have any questions or problems, please don't hesitate to write the listowners at e-mail: Alpine-L-request@nic.surfnet.NL

Louise Parsons and Harry Dewey, active co-listowners, Alpine-L

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Links of Interest to Penstemaniacs:

Horticulture OnlineThe website of Horticulture Magazine
North American Rock Garden SocietyA website devoted to alpine, saxatile, and low-growing perennials

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Last updated April 20, 1999.

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