• Foothill Penstemon, vivid and bright

    by  • April 21, 2011 • Garden, Plant Profiles, Sierra Foothills

    It’s California Native Plant Week and I’m profiling a different California native each day that is on my particular wish list. If you live in an area considered Mediterranean, you’ll be able to grow these, too. Today’s plant is Foothill Penstemon.

    Foothill penstemon, Penstemon laetus

    Foothill penstemon, Penstemon laetus

    Maybe because blue is a favorite color, maybe because I had not grown penstemon much in the past and maybe because it is a penstemon first seen and purchased at a favorite nursery, I fell hard for Foothill penstemon, Penstemon laetus, also called Mountain blue penstemon or Gay Penstemon.

    The genus, Penstemon, or Beard-tongue, is a common garden perennial, offered in so many colors and cultivars, but in California the native penstemons are nearly as varied. Penstemons normally have one large, sterile, furry stamen that pokes out to attract pollinators to the other four smaller fertile stamens (the name Penstemon means “Five Stamens”). “Laetus” means “bright” or “vivid”. 

    Foothill penstemon ..a little blurry

    Native to North America and East Asia, most penstemons are herbaceous perennials with flowers like snapdragons or sage but with an open mouth and fuzzy tongue that gives it its common name. All are suited to the wild Sierra Foothill garden, hardy from 0-10 F, unfazed by heat, overlooked by deer and drought tolerant. These are herbaceous perennials so most die to the ground, or nearly, in my garden.

     Foothill penstemon, as Intermountain Nursery calls it, is the loveliest color of iridescent blue-lavender. It’s found mostly in the Sierra Nevada foothills, stretching from one end of California to the other. It has a relatively broad and bushy habit with airy narrow-leaved foliage growing from a woody base, about 18 inches tall and takes some time to establish when transplanted.  The wait is worth it for it will bloom every May and June and will self seed to form larger colonies that will brighten a grassy area beginning to brown in late Spring’s heat.

    Mine were planted in 2006 from gallon containers on a clay bank and took four years to establish, the soil being the reason possibly. They have a ½ gal per hour dripper to them for late July and August or when we travel. I still feel they are less than robust, so will keep watering until they do. I’d also like to start another three plants in different soil conditions to see if they’d establish faster and easier. I consider the Foothill penstemon one of the prettiest native plants I’ve come across and my goal is to photograph it better (with focus this time) this June. This Spring, I was delighted to discover two or three seedlings near the parent plants and another goal is to grow and propagate more in several places in the garden.

    Finding your favorite penstemon
    The other penstemons that grow in the Sierra foothills are:
    Azure penstemon, Penstemon azureus or
    Penstemon azureus var. angustissimus
    Davidson’s penstemon, Penstemon davidsonii
    Sierra beardtongue, Penstemon heterodoxus
    Bunchleaf or Foothill penstemon, Penstemon heterophyllus
    Mountain pride, Penstemon newberryi
    Regel’s mountain penstemon, Penstemon roezlii
    Bridge’s Penstemon, Penstemon rostriflorus
    Rydberg’s penstemon, Penstemon rydbergii
    Royal Beardtongue, Penstemon speciosus

    Calflora is a source to try to find a native penstemon in your area.

    About Calflora:
    Calflora provides information on wild California plants for conservation, education, and appreciation. All native Penstemons on Calflora– just click here, choose your county, and Calflora will list all the penstemons native to your area.

     Photo of Foothill Penstemon from TheodorePayne.org, showing the beautiful blooms more clearly than mine.

    Spelling Penstemon:
    First, you have to learn to spell it.  There are no ‘A’s in penstemon, and I must have a block or something, but I have to think every time I type the name. Can anyone acknowledge me here?  There’s hope. Did you know you can add a new spelling to your Word dictionary? When you see the red squiggly line under a word, right click and choose ‘Add to dictionary’.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.