Mountain West Regional Reports

Penstemons Native to the Mountain West

These showy species grow wild in thin, rocky soil and are perfect for sunny, waterwise gardens

Palmer’s penstemon, with its abundant blooms, grows tall here in the dry, sandy earth of a Utah state park. Photo: Michelle Provaznik

I recently had the pleasure of taking a road trip across central and southern Colorado and Utah, exploring many of the natural wonders found in those two states. It was an extraordinary trip in which I discovered a variety of geological features, ecosystems found at different elevations, and different impacts of drought. One of the most exciting parts of the trip was seeing native plants thriving in the various landscapes. Some of the standouts were penstemons (Penstemon spp. and cvs., Zones 3–8). They would seemingly appear out of nowhere as bright spots in some of the most desolate areas.

bright fuschia penstemon
I could not identify this pretty, bright fuchsia penstemon growing in rocky soil. Photo: Michelle Provaznik

Penstemon diversity in the Mountain West

While there are over 200 species of this perennial, it turns out that 62 of them are native to Colorado. Wow! Penstemons are known for their tube-shaped flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The common name for these plants is beardtongue, a reference to the tubular flowers that flare open, forming what looks like upper and lower lips.

Diversity within the genus

These hardy perennials come in a variety of colors, including bright blue, red, pink, white, and many shades in between. They also come in a variety of sizes, from low, mat-forming types to larger plants with tall spikes of flowers. The even better news is that they are xeric, tolerate our soils well, and are deer and rabbit resistant.

Here are some native penstemons that I saw on my journey.

firecracker penstemon
The orange-red flowers of firecracker penstemon brighten the barren landscape. Photo: Michelle Provaznik

Firecracker penstemon

P. eatonii, Zones 4–8

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

Mature size: 18 to 24 inches tall and 12 to 15 inches wide

Native range: Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California

This evergreen penstemon has spikes of bright red flowers, as its common name suggests. It will grow in pretty harsh conditions, as evidenced by the photo above. This species blooms from spring through summer.

light pink penstemon
Palmer’s penstemon has defined, cupped petals with a delicate blush coloration. Photo: Michelle Provaznik

Palmer’s penstemon

P. palmerii, Zones 4–9

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

Mature size: 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide

Native range: Utah, Idaho, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico

This light pink to white–flowered variety is super hardy and will reseed, as evidenced by the amount we discovered at a state park in southern Utah (photo above). It has a lovely, light fragrance.

Rocky Mountain penstemon
Rocky Mountain penstemon has dark purplish-blue flowers that catch and reflect sunlight. Photo: M. Kersten via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Rocky Mountain penstemon

P. strictus, Zones 4–9

Conditions: Full to partial sun; well-drained soil

Mature size: 24 to 30 inches tall and 36 inches wide

Native range: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona

Probably the most recognizable native penstemon, Rocky Mountain penstemon’s bright blue flowers put on quite a show in mid to late spring, depending on your zone. This is a long-lived variety that requires minimal care over the years.

Rocky Mountain penstemon going to seed
Here’s Rocky Mountain penstemon going to seed after flowers have faded. Photo: Michelle Provaznik

—Michelle Provaznik is executive director of the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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