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There is a Northwest native Penstemon for every garden….
The majority of the fifty or so species of Penstemon that are native to the Pacific Northwest are alpine or otherwise high-altitude dwellers; they can be found in open areas and rocky outcroppings in the high Cascades, along the Columbia River Gorge, in the vicinity of the Wallowa mountains in the northeast and the Siskiyous in the southwest…
So what does that mean for us here in the soggy Willamette Valley? Rock gardens, troughs and other containers -- all these beauties need is plenty of sun and sharp drainage, and they will produce their stunning tubular flowers in colors from white through pinks and blues to lavender and purple over a long period of time and bring butterflies and hummingbirds into your garden.
And there are a couple species of Penstemon that reside on the western slope of the Cascades and do just fine in the ground here on the valley floor, given sun and drainage (more on that in a minute). See? There is no reason to not have a Penstemon of your own!
The name Penstemon comes from a slightly skewed translation from the Greek “Penta” five – in reference to the fifth, infertile and often bearded stamen that often protrudes out from the tubular, lipped flower that gives it its common name “Beardtongue”).
Whether mat forming or a more upright, woody shrub, the horizontal, tubular flowers are abundant and jewel-like; the leaves vary from small and round, almost succulent in nature to a toothed and leathery dark green. They are the same but different; once you get your first Penstemon, you may find yourself becoming a collector! They are arguably one of our most beautiful natives.
A sampling of Native Penstemon
Penstemon serrulatus (Cascade penstemon):
This is the Penstemon found west of the Cascades, more tolerant of moist conditions, and which grows successfully in the Willamette Valley. It is a small, woody shrub usually not rising above 2’, with clusters of small bright purple/lavender/blue flowers. Is considered drought-tolerant, but does better with regular water.`
P. ovatus (Broad-leaved penstemon)
Blue to purple flowers rise 12-40” above a basal rosette of leaves in late spring/early summer. Found in Multnomah county north to British Columbia, it grows in damp sites along forest edges. This one does well at the coast!
P. davidsonii (David’s penstemon, Creeping penstemon)
Named for George Davidson, an early plant collector, this diminutive native gets no taller than 6” and is found in rocky outcroppings in the Coast range, Cascade and Steens mountains. Tiny, round leathery evergreen leaves topped with blue to purple flowers in summer.
P. subserratus (Fine-toothed penstemon)
12-32” tall, herbaceous, with blue flowers from late spring to early summer. Can be found in clearings on Mt. Hood.
P.rupicola (Rock Penstemon)
Shrubby, evergreen, prostrate in habit, with leathery blue-green leaves and flowers generally bright pink. From the Columbia Gorge into the mountains on both sides of the Cascades. Also on Larch Mountain.
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Family: Scophulariaceae (Figwort)
Common Name: Beard-tongue
Origin: Western North America and East Asia
Characteristics: Whether mat-forming or upright varieties, all have the characteristic tubular flowers; five stamens, one typically bearded and protruding out to the end of the lower edge of the corolla, curled over like a lip, hence the name Beardtongue. Flower color can be white, pink, blue, lavender and purple.
Culture: Most require sharp drainage, full sun, and relatively lean soil.
Pruning: Late summer clean-up as needed, usually all that’s needed.
Pests & Diseases: Occasional leaf-spot if too much retained moisture.