Groff's Plant Farm Images

Penstemon- Drought Tolerant Bloomers to Beat the Heat

Published: Mon May 27th 2013

Need a summer blooming perennial that will beat the heat, and attract hummingbirds and butterfies? Stand about 2-3 feet in the garden and take scorching sun? How about one that prefers poor soil and little moisture? Penstemons might be for you.

Penstemons, or beard-tongues, are a large group of late-spring and summer blooming perennials that are gaining in popularity.

There are over 50 species native to the US- mostly the Midwest and Rocky Mountain areas. There are even several native to Pennsylvania and Maryland. Most penstemons grow well in full sun and naturally occur in dry or well-drained, rocky soil. They do not like fertilizer or rich compost. Several do well in my rocky garden with little care.

As with many native plants, the breeders have been busy mixing and matching members of this family to improve heat and cold tolerance, flower size and hardiness. In the seventeen years since ‘Huskers Red’ (named for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers) was selected as one of the first Perennial Plants of the Year in 1996 , many other notable hybrids are now widely available.

One of the most promising new series is the ‘Riding Hood’ series. The group contains hot pink, blue (pictured at left), purple, or red tubular flowers on compact flower spikes. The clump reaches 2-3 ft tall and wide. The ‘Riding Hood’ penstemons bloom over an extended period especially with deadheading.

‘Dark Towers’ is an improved ‘Huskers Red’ with darker foliage and pink flowers. One of my favorites is ‘Jingle Bells’ a tall red flowering variety. Hummingbirds love this one.

For a finer texture and more petite size, try the pineleaf penstemons. Blooming in either red or yellow, for about 2 months the pineleaf penstemons reach about 1 foot tall. When out of flower they resemble a small conifer because they have very fine needle-like foliage and are evergreen.

Penstemons with the species P. mexicale in their background flower profusely in a wide range of shades from pink, lavender, purple and red. These are generally 2 feet tall with tall blooming spikes for 2 months or more. They are not as hardy in this climate and are often treated as annuals.

Summer is here- try a penstemon to beat those dog days.