There are some 250 species of penstemon. Most are native to the West, ranging from Canada into Mexico; some grow on the highest mountains, some in the desert, and others in forest glades, in foothills, on plains. A few are widely available, but most are sold only by specialists. Some of the perennials described here have woody-based stems, while others are herbaceous. Most species have narrowish, pointed leaves; those in basal foliage clump are larger, those on flower stems are smaller. Narrowly bell-shaped, lipped flowers (usually 3/4–1 1/2 in. long) are most commonly seen in bright reds and blues, but they also come in shades from soft pink through salmon and peach to deep rose, lilac, dark purple, white, and, rarely, yellow. Blossoms of some species attract hummingbirds.
Need fast drainage. Species in particular benefit from rock garden conditions. Usually short lived (3 or 4 years). Hybrids and selections tend to be easier to grow than wild species alongside regular garden plants; wild kinds may die quickly if given too-rich soil and too much water. In dry years or with restricted water, however, plants of wild species may thrive.Penstemon hybrids
Perennials in Zones 6–9, 14–24; treated as annuals elsewhere (grow as a winter annual in Zones 12, 13). All are compact, bushy, upright plants to 2–4 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide, with narrow green leaves. Large (to 2-in.) summer flowers in loose spikes at stem ends, in almost all colors but blue and yellow. Mass these plants in borders or group with other summer-flowering plants. Where grown as perennials, set out nursery transplants in fall for bloom in late spring and early summer. After the flowers fade, cut back to side growth for another round of bloom in late summer, early fall. This group of penstemons prefers regular water but is subject to root rot in wet, heavy soils.
‘Alice Hindley’: Shiny foliage and pale lilac blooms with white throats.
‘Apple Blossom’: Pink flowers with white throats.
‘Blackbird’: Dark maroon blooms held on deep red stems.
‘Evelyn’: Soft rosy pink blooms on a fine-leafed, bushy plant.
‘Firebird’ (‘Schoenholzeri’): Scarlet flowers on a vigorous, heavy-blooming plant.
‘Garnet’ (‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’): Fine-leafed plant with wine red blooms. Long-lived and floriferous.
‘Hidcote Pink’: Heavy producer of coral pink flowers with a white, maroon-streaked throat.
Kissed series: These large-flowered selections have white-throated blooms with lips in bright colors: ‘Cerise Kissed’, ‘Coral Kissed’, ‘Violet Kissed’, ‘Wine Kissed’.
‘Midnight’: Vigorous, bushy plant with deep green leaves and dark bluish purple blooms.
‘Sour Grapes’: The true variety has flowers in a combination of violet and metallic blue, but some plants sold under this name may have bright red-violet blooms.
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