Hummingbirds know a good thing. Many gardeners do too, although some may not realize exactly how easy these perennials are to grow, especially in xeric-type landscapes.

A lineup of bell-shaped blooms climb penstemons’ upright stems from May into August, just right for slurping by hummingbirds. Bees go for them, too.

Also known as beard tongue, penstemons are native to our mountainous regions, covering most of those in North America and Central America. Many tiny ones have adapted and persist even in the desert. You’ll see lots of them as you hike trails in the Cascades. Reddish-purple ones are prolific, attracting bees and hummers on Johnston Ridge near Mount St. Helens in July and August.

In fact, the majority of some 270 species are native to our West. They range in size from ground-hugging up to nearly 5-feet tall, although many available to gardeners are 1 ½- to 3-feet tall. Petite ones are perfect in dry rock garden settings, while larger ones work well in flower borders.

Well-drained soil and a sunny site are prerequisites, and most thrive on infrequent summer irrigation. Provide them with lean sandy soil and they’ll reward you for several years. Heavy soil and too much water are sure-fire killers.

Deadhead right after they finish blooming and you’ll get repeat blooms, although not as bountiful as the first flush.

Reds and pinks are the most usual colors, although penstemons come in a rainbow of other colors also.

A few non-hybrid garden favorites include P. ‘Blackbird’ with dark purple blooms on 3-foot stalks June and July. With P. digitalis ‘Husker Red,’ one would assume it produces red flowers, but no, they’re white on impressive burgundy foliage. It was named Perennial Plant of the Year in 1997 and it can take more shade and moisture than many others. P. cardinalis is another nice choice, with dark red blossoms and leathery, dark green foliage.

If you haven’t grown penstemons before, this may be your year to try them in your landscape.


A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Mary Fran McClure is one of four columnists featured.