There are so many kinds of penstemons that the American Penstemon Society publishes a newsletter and illustrated guides for choosing these plants. Except for one species from Asia, all the rest are native to North America, with most coming from the West Coast. The genus name refers to the presence of a fifth stamen.
Description of beard tongue: Basal foliage is evergreen in warmer climates. The leaves are sometimes whorled. Flowers are tubular in airy, terminal clusters atop strong stems, blooming from spring into summer.
Growing beard tongue: Penstemons come from areas with rough growing conditions and should never be exposed to wet or damp earth. A thin, rocky soil in full sun is best. Of all the species, P. barbatus seems to do the best in the East. Ease of care: Moderately easy.
Propagating beard tongue: By division in spring or by seed.
Uses for beard tongue: Penstemons are exceedingly attractive in the garden and have a long season of bloom. Plants are best set out in groups so that a mass of flowers is in view. For those who succumb to their beauty, entire specialty gardens can be made of only this genus. They are excellent as cut flowers.
Beard tongue related species: Penstemon digitalis, or foxglove, grows in moist soil and bears open clusters of somewhat inflated white flowers. Husker Red has deep ruby-red foliage and stems and pink flowers. P. hirsutus is an eastern native with purple-to-violet, narrow flowers. Pygmaeus has reddish foliage and lilac flowers on 8-inch stems. P. pinifolius has multi-branched stems clothed in small, needle-like leaves and scarlet flowers. P. smallii is clothed top to bottom in rose purple flowers for several weeks in early spring.
Beard tongue related varieties: Alba has white flowers. Elfin Pink has clear pink flowers on 1-foot high branches, making it perfect for the front of the border. Prairie Fire is a vivid orange-red on 22-inch stems. Prairie Dusk has purple flowers on 20-inch stems. Blue Midnight is deep blue-violet. Firebird has scarlet flowers in summer on 2-inch stems. Garnet is deep red with a pale throat. Mesa has deep violet flowers on 20-inch stems. Red Rocks tolerates heat and humidity better than others. It has rosy-pink flowers. Sour Grapes has inflated red-violet flowers.
Scientific name of beard tongue: Penstemon barbatus