Penstemons (Attracting Pollinators with Native Plants)

Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red'
Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ in my garden.

Penstemons, the Beardtongues, include over 200 species indigenous to North America including Mexico. There is a penstemon species for every region. The genus is the largest group of flowers indigenous to North America. Penstemons are a favorite with British gardens who have hybridized many varieties of the pretty flowers.

The trumpet-shaped flowers are clustered along the stems. The flowers are partly tube-shaped and are tunnels in which pollinators climb into in search of nectar and pollen. The plants have opposite leaves.

Penstemon Bearded Tongue ‘Sour Grapes’ with Bumble Bee

Penstemon and Pollinators

Penstemons attract numerous bees, wasps, and flies. The pollen and nectar collectors include Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina spp.) Digger Bees (Anthophora spp.) Sweat Bees (Lasioglossum spp.) Leafcutter Bees (Megachile spp.), Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.), Syrphid Flies (Toxomerus) and more.

Some species, particularly the western flowers, attract hummingbirds.

Penstemon digitalis, 'Husker Red'
Clumping Penstemon digitalis, ‘Husker Red’ in my garden.

Growing Tips

The family likes excellent drainage, meaning keep it out of soggy areas of the garden. The penstemons are wonderfully drought-tolerated which is needed in the hot, dry summer months in my Philadelphia garden.

In my garden a clumping, stand of Penstemon digitalis, ‘Husker Red’ with its burgundy red stems has been delighting me for perhaps ten years. It is also known as the ‘Foxglove Penstemon’. I probably chose it because of the foxglove characteristics. Foxgloves don’t survive in my garden for more than two years. ‘Husker Red is still going strong in its’ second decade.

Husker Red is a clumper, meaning it starts out as a neat mound and the mound expands in circumference each year. The plant doesn’t spread like a plant with a running growth habit. I would check each species or varieties of penstemons’ growth habitat (either clumping or spreading) before planting it in  your garden.

‘Husker Red’ lives in light shade but will do well in full Sun. Penstemons need at least partial shade and some need full Sun.

See more Clumping for Neatness: Tidy Native Plants

Hairy Penstemon (Penstemon hirsutus)
Hairy Penstemon (Penstemon hirsutus)

Quick Facts

Description: Penstemons are perennial forbs, subshrubs or shrubs with attractive flowers. They are most common in the western United States. A good guide to native flowers for your region will list local natives.

Common name: numerous species
Scientific name: Penstemon spp. (pen-stay-mon) from the Greek meaning five stamens.
Family name: Plantaginaceae

Attracts: Penstemons are food for deer, antelope and birds either as a green plant or seed. They may also provide some cover for selected small bird species. The nectar ad pollen attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, wasps, and other insects.

Host plant to: Purple-lined Swallow moth (Pyrrhia expimens)

Native range: found all over the entire United States, Mexico, and some areas of Canada. There are species for every region.

Habitat: does best on well-drained soils but will also do well on infertile, disturbed soils. They have excellent cold weather and drought tolerance. The plants are usually found in open areas, but will tolerate semi-shaded conditions

Height: varies with species
Light needed: sun or semi-shaded
Hardiness zones: there is a species found in all areas of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Bloom period: May through July depending on species
Bloom color: varies with species

Growing Tips: The best seeding results are obtained from seeding in very early spring. During late summer (August – mid September) seeding is not recommended. Flowering should not be expected until at least the second growing season.

Selected Eastern Species

  • Foxglove penstemon (P. digitalis)
  • Hairy Beardtongue (P. hirsutus)
  • Smooth Beardtongue (P. laevigatus)
  • Gray Beardtongue (P. canescens)

Selected Western Species

  • Firecracker Penstemon (P. eatonii)
  • White Wild Snapdragon (P. cobaea)
  • Scarlet bugler or Shark’s head penstemon (P. barbatus)
  • Rocky Mountain penstemon (P. strictus)

More Information on Penstemons

Find a map with what Penstemons are native to your area visit, the USDA Plant Database.

To learn a Penstemon species specific growing needs visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and search for each species: Type in the word ‘penstemon’ and marvel at all the species and varieties.

Penstemon Gallery

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