Thu, Sept. 19

<i>Your Living Space</i><br>In Praise of the Penstemon

Photo by Steve Ayers

STEVE Yoder oversees a number of projects at the Arboretum.

It grows 1-3 feet tall with a row of tubular flowers running up a long stem. You may spot it in a variety of colors from red to pink to purple to blue to white.

If you see a plant that meets these criteria, the odds are you will be looking at one variety or another of the ubiquitous penstemon.

Also known as beardtongue, the penstemon is a true American and a native Arizonan. Its 270 different species make it the most varied plant on the continent, and it can vary in size from shrub to groundcover.

Its range extends from Guatemala to Alaska. Depending on where you find them, they will flower from spring to autumn.

Penstemons are a member of the same family as the snapdragon and are quite popular with gardeners who appreciate their varied colors and heights.

Penstemons are hardy perennials and celebrated for their ease of care. They are naturally drought tolerant and frost resistant.

Master Gardener Jeff Schalau, director of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Service in Yavapai County, advises planting them in full sun with ample growing space. They are spring bloomers in the Verde Valley and adapt to this area quite readily.

They make great accents for a cactus or rock garden.

Some gardening sources recommend trimming them back during the winter to about one-third their normal size helps to keep them shapely and prolific.

The first European botanists to explore the North American continent coveted and collected this previously unknown plant, returning many specimens to Europe for cultivation.

Knowing this, it is no surprise that the largest penstemon society in the world is in England, where the plant is not even native.

“Call it a love of the exotic,” says Steve Yoder, assistant director of the Arboretum at Flagstaff.

If anyone should understand this prolific plant it is Yoder and the team of horticulturists at the arboretum.

They have spent a great deal of time giving this plant its due.

In fact, the arboretum’s inventory of penstemons covers about one-third of the known species. They grow them for both display and research.

Arizona is home to 45 different species, with the Flagstaff area being home to 12 of the species. There is even one variety that is called Flagstaff beardtongue (Penstemon nudiflorus) and one called Arizona penstemon (penstemon psudospectabilis).

In celebration of the plant’s legacy to the western landscape, the Arboretum at Flagstaff is planning its first Penstemon Festival on July 24 at their facility on the west side of Flagstaff.

The festivities will include the unveiling of a new penstemon garden, which will become a new feature garden among the arboretum’s many displays, and a number of speakers lauding the merits of this hardy drought-tolerant beauty.

There will also be two informative slide shows, a penstemon treasure hunt along with other activities for the kids, and planting demonstrations.

They will also have plenty of penstemons for sale.

“The penstemons started blooming a little early this year, like everything else, but they should still be going strong for the festival,” Yoder said.

The festival is scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Arboretum at Flagstaff is located at 4001 S. Woody Mountain Road, which is one mile west of Milton Road, and four miles south of Route 66.

For more information call (928) 774-1442 or visit

Care and Feeding of your Penstemon

Penstemons are hardy perennials and notorious for their ease of care. They are naturally drought resistant and frost tolerant.

Plant them about 6 inches apart in well-drained soil. They like full sun but can tolerate light shade.

For the most part, they will flower in the spring and into the summer. Some species in some areas will flower into the fall.

Trimming them back in the winter to about one-third their normal size will help keep them shapely and prolific.

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