IT’S TIME FOR another round of Seattle Grows, a botanical party game (that I made up) where I ask local garden professionals what plant we should all be growing. This time I turned to Marcia Bruno, owner of West Seattle Nursery (westseattlenursery.com), for her recommendation for summer gardens. Full disclosure, West Seattle Nursery is my local go-to source for plants and growing supplies. It also happens to be where — at the end of hose — my professional garden path began in the early 1990s.
“Penstemon,” Bruno promptly replied when I popped my question at the bustling checkout stand. “Do it for the bees.”
Beardtongue (Penstemon sp.) is the largest genus of plants endemic to North America — which is to say, you can grow this adaptive and colorful native perennial. Known as a pioneer plant, penstemon is one of the first plants to reestablish after fire, erosion or renovation. This is a sure sign of resilience and its ability to thrive in lean soil, but it also indicates that these plants appreciate space to establish free from the root competition of other mature plantings.
Beginning in early summer, beardtongue produces graceful spires of tubular blooms in a range of colors from pale pink and lavender to intense crimson and electric blue. Markings on the throat of some blooms guide pollinators to a jackpot of pollen and nectar.
Penstemon hybrida cultivars commonly available in nurseries bloom throughout the summer and range in size from 1 to 3 feet tall. Plants with dark eggplant-purple foliage, like ‘Husker Red’ with blushing white blooms and ‘Dark Towers’ with pink flowers, maintain the best foliage color when grown in full sun. These beauties tolerate border life conditions with richer soil and regular water. More delicate in scale, Penstemon barbatus ‘Elfin Pink’ puts up numerous wiry stems clothed in pale pink flowers that produce a haze of blooms that hummingbirds find irresistible.
Other species prefer well-drained sandy, even rocky, conditions and are very drought-tolerant. Pineleaf beardtongue (Penstemon pinifolius), a dwarf plant with needlelike foliage and citrus-colored blooms, thrives in hot, challenging, less-than-hospitable sites; think roadside hellstrip. Avoid winter wet, and the squat plants will grow into a long-lived evergreen subshrub.
Another choice plant for well-drained sunny slopes and rock gardens, Penstemon heterophyllus is a California native with brilliant iridescent blue flowers in early summer. The compact semi-woody plants are very drought-tolerant, thrive in sandy soil and tolerate coastal conditions. Like a light that shines brightest before it burns out, this species is a short-lived (3 to 5 years) perennial. Replenish with young plants every few seasons and you’ll never be without. Beardtongue is one of the best garden perennials for attracting (and nourishing) hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Remove flowering stems after blooming to tidy the plant and promote fresh growth and possibly even a second flush of blooms. Penstemon is deer- and rabbit-resistant.