A drive up into the Wasatch mountains in April to July is almost guaranteed to provide a colorful floral experience to any vehicle passenger or hiker. But the best bang of them all comes from the firecracker penstemon!
Beardtongue DiversityIf you haven’t heard of penstemons yet, they are the workhorse flowers of the dry American West. Penstemons are a long tubed flower sporting tufts along the lower petal. This lower petal turns down to show the tufts in a way that looks like a beard. This gives penstemons their common name of beardtongue. Every spring they pop out of the arid cracks and rocky soils of the mountains and foothills in a range of pinks, blues, and purples – and the occasional red. And when it comes to red, the firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) does it best.
Thrives in Arid, Gravely SoilDue to their dry native habitat and love of impoverished soils, penstemon can be hard to grow in a home garden. None of the western penstemon species do well with even medium water amounts. They also do not like lots of nitrogen or organic material of any sort. In fact, this past summer we found a Palmer’s penstemon growing up through the cracks in the Nature’s Seed parking lot. Rocks, dry gravely soil, and good drainage is what penstemon, including firecracker penstemon, really likes. This love of hard conditions does limit its use to the arid western climates of the U.S. where it’s a savior for those tough areas that need minimal work and hassle. After all, why should any of us spend a lot of time and energy improving soil for a perennial flowerbed that shows its color mostly in the spring when we can use natives and cut down on the work?
Growing Firecracker PenstemonThere is not a lot of documentation on how best to get any penstemon to sprout, but they tend to do better with a cold stratification of eight weeks at 59 degrees F (15 C). They may also respond to germinating in sunlight. But the scientific jury is still out on those recommendations, so if you want to plant in the spring go ahead. When you spread the seed, make sure a few have a light covering of soil and just openly broadcast the rest. Germination should only take two or three weeks once temperatures get to about 65 degrees F.
MaintenancePlants are not likely to flower from seed the first year, but the second year you should notice several two foot high stems, each adorned with 5-10 tubular crimson flowers. All perennial penstemons are listed as being short lived, but if you have the right area penstemons will reseed nicely and replace any plants that die out. One of the things that you do have to worry about with penstemons is that they will reseed freely and are looked at by some as being weedy. Now I hope you remember that list of do and do nots I gave you earlier. When it comes to reseeding, firecracker penstemons may not follow those rules if they decide they like something about the location. I haven’t seen them move into a wet area yet, but I don’t like to get to bossy with a plant that is intended to be mostly wild!