Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Penstemon calycosus

 As I walked the garden this month and watched Penstemon calycosus go from bud to full bloom I was reminded of when we first met. It was love at first sight, but, it took me years to find it. Here's the story.
Finding new wildflowers is still a joy, but, back then, I was recovering from feeling like a complete garden failure. I was terribly inexperienced and it hadn't occurred to me that the plants that I saw growing so happily in other gardens wouldn't grow in mine. I had no idea that my garden conditions were not like my friend's yards. I assumed they were because we were gardening in the same neighborhood. It took a bit of research to figure out that this yard used to be part of a woodland of native trees, shrubs, perennials and ephemerals before developers bulldozed it to create new housing for a growing middle class in the post war 50s. They built brick houses that had deep backyards and bare front yards. They left a few trees, but took out the understory and planted lawn grasses, so that boys and girls could play baseball, kickball and reach for the sky on their backyard swings. There was one owner of our property before we bought it. Lawn was sparse when we moved here in 1985 and it's obvious to me now that it must have always struggled, but, shagbark hickories, elms, ashes, oaks, junipers and rough leaved dogwoods kicked butt and thrived. So did the wildflowers which were growing in the woodland remnants on the edges and corners of the garden.
The turning point of my education as a gardener came from reading Thomas E Hemmerly's book, Wildflowers of the Central South. The pieces all fell together and it finally made sense why my yard was so difficult.

He introduced me to concepts that were important to know if I were to have any success at gardening here. I learned about Middle Tennessee microclimates and about the unique wildflowers that grew only in the cedar glades. I was able to figure out that my garden was a xeric oak-hickory forest plant community with areas of shallow soil and limestone bedrock very near the surface. The shallow, nearly neutral clay soil was hard as concrete during our dry summers and wet and sticky during our rainy winters.

Conditions like that needed special plants. Plants that were waiting in the garden wings for me to notice. I mulled over what I learned from his book and found myself thinking: "Gail, your garden isn't a failure, but, trying to make it something that it isn't is the true failure. Take a look at what's already growing here. Appreciate and celebrate what you have."
The Garden of Benign Neglect when it was at its best
The following spring I was able to identify columbines, Spring beauties, false rue anemone, rue anemone, toothwort, false garlic, golden ragwort, Phlox divaricata, blue-eyed grass, Western Daisy,  downy mint, lyre-leaf sage, and sedges were living in the lawn. Crawling about I discovered trout-lily, Dutchman's Breeches and Trilliums were hiding under the shrubs.

How lucky could a gardener get!

Then, in May, I found dozens of Penstemon calycosus growing in the wayback backyard. Not only was it growing in the dry shade, it was thriving in a soggy, wet area with mosses. I fell instantly in love.
Penstemon calycosus became a foundation plant for my late spring garden. I transplanted it to the front garden where it began to set seed and spread. I still delight in the buds and blooms and wait impatiently for the first Bumblebees to visit it in May. It's a major food source for bumbles and hummingbirds. I miss the activity when bloom time passes, but other beauties move in to provide for them.

Penstemon calycosus is a fantastic plant for moist sunny garden beds or woodland edges. I like the lance-shaped, semi-glossy, medium green, finely saw-toothed edged foliage that is semi-evergreen in my garden. The snapdragon like flowers are produced on terminal panicles that bloom for at least a month, especially if the spring is cooler. Folks further north might have a longer bloom time than here.

small carpenter bee
It's a plant I would love to see showcased in more gardens. I have never seen P calycosus offered for sale in a garden center or big box store. What's offered are cultivars of P digitalis or the many western Penstemons that act as annuals in most gardens east of the Mississippi River. If you want to try this beauty check with a native plant nursery.

It's a disease resistant plant that grows in almost any conditions. The literature says it's partial to full sun and moist, well-drained to dry soils, but, folks, remember, that it was found growing on wet weather seeps that are anything but well draining; so, it can take wet feet for a while. It has survived droughty summers and wet winters and blooms beautifully every spring. What it cannot tolerate is a xeric type garden.

As I said earlier, it's been planting itself around my garden for years, but, last fall I transplanted several dozen plants in two different locations to create a big display. I am happy to say that not only do I like them, but the bees seem to love being able to move from plant to plant.

nectar guides and fuzzy "tongue" in each open bloom

I will continue to mass it and let it romp to its heart's content. Yes, it does romp, but, not with abandon. This take care of itself, rough and tumble beauty is a successful self seeder. It seems to look good with almost any other wildflower or shrub. It's planted itself near Baptisias, Tradescantia, Zizia aurea, purple leaved Heucheras, bluestar, Blephilia subnuda, Aquilegia canadensis, Chasmanthium latifolium and Hypericum frondosum.  

I've even found it growing in cracks and crevices. I like that in a plant, but if you don't just cut the seed heads off. Just don't call this native invasive, it's a highly successful seeder and very easy to transplant.

Seriously, what's not to like about a plant that has a long bloom season, is semi evergreen, turns a lovely burgundy in the winter, grows easily from seed, brings on the pollinators and makes you smile?


The Particulars

Common Name: beardtongue
Family: Plantaginaceae (they used to be in the fig wort family)
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Native Range: Eastern and southeastern United States
Native plant community: Mesic prairie, woodland, Savannah
Zone: 3 to 8
Height: 3.00 to 5.00 feet Spread: 1.50 to 2.00 feet
Plant structure: Leaves are bright green and arranged opposite from each other along the stems. Blades are lanceolate and glossy with serrate edges and pointed tips. The leaves are up to 5” long and 2” across.
Bloom Time: April to June
Bloom Description: Pale lavender to deep purple. Each tubular flower is about 1" long, with 2 upper lobes and 3 lower lobes; the lower lobes do not project outward any further than the upper lobes. On the outer surface, the corolla is light violet or purple and covered with fine hairs, while the inner surface is white. The lower inner surface of the corolla is smooth and lacks ridges. The anthers and style are inserted within the corolla. There are nectar guides for bees.
Sun: Full sun, part sun, shade, filtered shade
Soil: Plants tolerate clay, alkaline pH and heat.
Water: Dry to medium
Maintenance: Medium
Propagation: Florets are followed by small capsules containing many tiny seed that self seed wonderfully.
Suggested Use: Naturalize, Rain Garden, Wildlife Garden, Cut Flower Garden, or Meadow. Plants are also used as Butterfly Nectar Plants or as part of a Groundcover, Grouping or Mass Planting.   Showy Blooms and is appropriate for Cottage Gardens, Deer Resistant Plantings, Water-wise Landscapes, Low Maintenance Plantings, Rain Gardens, Shade Gardens and Perennial Borders.

Wildlife value:  Long tongued bees, butterflies, sphinx moths and hummingbirds sip nectar from the flowers.  Caterpillars of several moth species feed on the foliage.
Tolerate: Deer, Drought, Clay Soil, Dry Soil
Botanical history: John Mitchell, an 18th century American botanist, recorded the first botanical description of this plant genus; Carl Linnaeus included it in his landmark publication Species Plantarum in 1753. According to legend, Native Americans once used this plant as a versatile medicinal remedy. Its unusual common name comes from a fuzzy "tongue" in each open bloom, which gives a slight resemblance to a mouth and a tongue. The genus name "Penstemon" comes from Greek words for "five threads," referring to the stamens of each blossom.(source)

Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday.  Thank you all for joining me as we celebrate and share our marvelous and beautiful wildflowers. I hope 2020 is the year we all plant more native wildflowers for the many critters that live in and visit our gardens. Let's be sure we celebrate them every day, not just WW. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not, you can still share them. Please leave a comment and add your name to Mr Linky so others can pop over to see your Wildflower Wednesday post.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. I really enjoyed reading how you started your wildlife journey. I too have learned that a successful garden starts with the soil and right plant, right place. All too often the plants now better than me where they grow best. I love plants that self seed. This is a great choice and I so enjoy watching the bees and hummers visiting them. As always, thanks for hosting and being such an advocate for native plants!

  2. You are welcome. Your WW post is fabulous...xo

  3. I would love to see your beautiful garden one day. I really would. I enjoyed this story so much.~~Dee

  4. Thank you for the Wildflower Wednesday prompt -- I had two lovely plants that were candidates.


  5. That is a beautiful plant, Gail--especially when you see how much the pollinators love it!

  6. Sold! These sound lovely, no wonder you enjoy them so much. If you ever find some volunteers coming up where you don’t want them, I will be happy to come dig them up and bring them to Franklin. 😁

  7. So interesting. Not one I knew before but now I do!

  8. thanks so much for this post- was not aware of this plant and have just the spot here in my NC garden(damp, clay, edge of woodland..) will be looking for this plant.

  9. I absolutely love your macro pictures of this beautiful plant. Wow I grow a Penstemon 'Digitalis'. It has white flowers, native to our area.

  10. It's beautiful!
    Have a wonderful weekend!

  11. A bee on Hypoestes aristata

  12. That's a very cool Penstemon. It seems there are a lot more species in this genus than I used to think.

  13. Very nice, Gail.

    And good timing as I've just celebrated P. calycosus (and P. digitalis) on my blog!


    I only have one P. calycosus (added to the garden last year and moved to a shadier spot when it seemed unhappy with its sun-until-early-afternoon location). As you say, it seems to have tolerated the transplantation with aplomb and settled in nicely. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for seedlings!!

    PS - Do you know if Penstemons hybridize across species as Baptisias do?


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson