It happens this time each year, at least in this garden, the greens and the textures take over. They are great! Especially shiny and pleasing after one of the (many) rains we have. Different fern frond patterns stand tall among the seedheads forming and the flower buds getting ready for their debut. Grasses mingle in their subtle way through the garden. Right now the Elymus histrix is looking stellar in the shade garden, the flower spike is there but if you are not sure what you are looking for, or it is not planted en masse you may miss this bottlebrush spike of woodland edge wonder.
Careful spotting along commutes and in gardens have given me the answer to this late spring lull in the garden. Penstemons. Beard Tongues. There are 150 species of Pensetmon native to the United States and one just perfect to fill this late spring lull in your garden.
Yep. From roadside edges to the most cultivated of gardens, these native perennials are blooming all over the place right now. Better yet, they are supporting a lot of pollinators as well.
You may be familiar with the Husker Red cultivar of Pensetmon digitalis, frequently sold in retail shops, featuring the white tubular flowers typical of Pensetmon digitalis but also sporting red foliage. Purple stems of this clumping perennial set off the white flowers nicely.
Penstemon digitalis, Beard Tongue or sometimes Foxglove Beardtongue, does not feature the red foliage of Husker Red, and is the plant you see blooming now everywhere. This plant will tolerate open meadows in full sun and part shade, brighting up a woodland edge.
If, while you are driving around, you happen to notice a field full of Penstemon, stop and take a listen. You will hear the buzzing of pollinators and beneficial insects all around. the Xerces society notes the importance of this perennial’s bloom time when many of the native perennials have either finished their blooms or not quite started blooming. It is most fun to walk out into the field (with permission, of course) and be surrounded by the flowers and the pollinators. It is astounding how many you will find out there. We tend to think of pollinator plants as bright, showy colorful things, but the white blooms of Penstemon do the trick, adding flowers to your garden and feeding the insects. Bumblebees seem to especially love these flowers and if you’re lucky you get to witness their fuzzy backsides hanging out of a flower as the buzz inside gathering nectar and pollen.
But if you are not a fan of white flowers or have a shade garden – fear not! There is a penstemon for you.
Like P. digitalis, Penstemon calycosus, Calico Penstemon or Smooth Beardtongue, prefers sunny or partly shaded sites, attracts pollinators but is topped with tubular lavender flowers. The leaves are a shiny dark green and serrated. This one needs a bit more moisture than P. digitalis.
The hairy stems and hairy flower petals of Penstemon hirsutus give the plant its name Hairy Beardtongue. While primarily blooming a pale purple, the flowers can vary from shades of purples, blues and sometimes white. This penstemon prefers full sun to part shade and medium wet to dry soils.
Penstemon smalii, Smalls penstemon, has large leaves defying its name. These leaves feature purple veins and are heart-shaped as a textural alternative to the lance-shaped leaves of other penstemons. This is a rare plant, only occurring in mountainous habitats of 5 southeastern states. Flowers on this tend to last nearly a month, exceed the display length of most penstemon and ensuring flowers between the last spring bloom and the first flower of summer.
Consider incorporating a few Penstemon species into your next design, the flowers during the late spring bloom are reason enough to do this, but a good fall color display, seeds the birds will enjoy and the plethora of pollinators you will have visiting your landscapes make them a must in all gardens.