Penstemon sp. (Beardtongue)

Zone: 3 to 8

Soil: Sand to loam

Light: Full sun to part sun

Bloom colour: White, pink and red

Bloom period: June to July

Height: 24 to 36 inches

Moisture: Dry to medium

Attracts: Bumblebees and hummingbirds

Notes: There are hundreds of Penstemons found in North America, but only three species are native to Ontario. The two most commonly available species are Penstemon digitalis and Penstemon hirsutus.

The deep corolla of these plants makes them suited to pollination by long-tongued bees and hummingbirds. Penstemons may sometimes be referred to as beardtongue due to an infertile stamen that protrudes from the flower and which can be hairy. In Penstemon hirsutus, the function of the staminode is to make a bee brush the stigma and deposit pollen from another plant before collecting any new pollen. This encourages cross-fertilisation. You may notice that Penstemon digitalis does not have a "beard". Its staminode is shorter and terminates inside the flower.

Penstemon hirsutus, blooming in late spring, is one of the earlier flowering perennials that provides much needed food for queen bees. Most of the leaves are basal and it grows less than 2 feet high. While Penstemon digitalis seems to be more available in nurseries, Penstemon hirsutus with its dense cluster of flowers is a worthy addition to a flower garden. This plant really needs full sun and dry well drained soil. In part sun, it is unlikely to thrive and will stop flowering.

Penstemon digitalis is a lot more versatile and will grow in a variety of conditions except full shade. It is an easy plant to grow in a garden. It is taller than Penstemon hirsutus and the flowers are borne further apart. It flowers in early summer and combines well with downy woodmint and yellow coneflower as their blooming times overlap. A decent sized patch of this Penstemon digitalis will definitely attract the attention of hummingbirds. Such is not the case for the other two species mentioned here. Penstemon grandiflorus may also attract hummingbirds. It is a near native and it can be grown with some patience in Ontario.

Penstemon gracilis is really a western species with a range that extends into Ontario. It is the smallest of the three species here. It is similar to Penstemon hirsutus and grows in similar conditions.

Species in Ontario include:

Penstemon digitalis

Penstemon gracilis

Penstemon hirsutus

Hairy staminode of Penstemon hirsutus
Penstemon hirsutus
Penstemon hirsutus
Penstemon against dark background
Penstemon digitalis
Penstemon digitalis closeup
Penstemon digitalis
Penstemon pallidus is the rarest Penstemon in Ontario
Penstemon gracilis
Penstemon digitalis
Penstemon digitalis is the easiest of the three species to grow. It grows in full sun and can still flower in a fair amount of shade.