Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Penstemon digitalis inside the Entrance to Fern Valley

This plant, actually a selection of this species (Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red') was perennial plant of the year in 1996. If you were in Fern Valley this week, or last week, or if you show up next week, you saw or will see this display around the entrance, with looser stands along the roadside with assorted individuals popping up in suitable adjacent areas. Pretty nice. The plant makes a sturdy rosette of evergreen leaves (in the winter they are bright red on 'Husker Red') from which the flowering stems grow in late spring/early summer. The fruit that follow the flowers are effective as well as attractive, hence the steady colonization.

One of the common names for P. digitalis, is Talus sloper Penstemon, an appellation whose origin I have never quite understood. While the literature does suggest that the plant is a bit fussy about drainage, I have not found that to be the case; actually it seems to prefer a bit of moisture, thriving in low areas in Fern Valley and languishing in Adelphi where the sand dries out in the summer. Okay, it does need a little water, but its not especially demanding, and I have never seen it attacked by any insects or ravaged by any disease. It likes full sun but tolerates somewhat less. The literature suggests that bad drainage can lead to root rot, but this is a plant I have known well for a long time and I have never seen it rot.

At lunch some of us were discussing this penstemon and I wondered aloud why it seemed to be so unappreciated. One line of thought suggested that maybe the flower scapes were too tall. It is a short plant (the rosettes ~1') with tall flower stalks; they can be over 4' tall. Hey, sometimes thats good; it works for Black Cohosh. I suppose it is an issue if you buy a plant expecting it to grow to a foot and a half and it tops four feet! Still, dependable, carefree, long-lived, free flowering perennials that can be cut for floral arrangements don't grow on trees.

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