"See with what simplicity
This nymph begins her golden days!
In the green grass she loves to lie,
And there with her fair aspect tames
The wilder flowers, & gives them names."
On the sunny side of the Pin Oak we have another hardy Beard Tongue, one of the prettiest, Penstemon 'Prairie Dusk' released in 1990. It was developed in America by crossing P. barbatus 'Flathead Lake' with P. strictus. The primary parent species barbatus found its way into English gardening by 1835. 'Prairie Dusk' blooms May through August or until first frost, benefiting from deadheading. In winter it retains its basal leaves.
The August photo above shows its rose-purple brilliance that almost looks lit from within. It has a very short rosette of foliage & the only upright component are these leafed stems of tubular flowers, usually under two feet tall. Though our other penstemons bloom clear to the end of Autumn, 'Prairie Dusk' is done earlier in Autumn. The second photo below right shows it the following June, from an angle that reveals the striped interior of the blooms.
P. barbatus is evergreen & drought tolerant once established, but being much flatter to the ground in its growth habit compared to our other penstemons, it does not have the bushy winter presence of our 'Garnet,' 'Midnight Blue,' 'Ruby,' & 'Garnet' cultivars.
Because our 'Prairie Dusk' went into a well-watered garden, but does not actually require a lot of watering, it was placed on a step-down ledge for full drainage, thus experiences moderate dryness from time to time. The other penstemons appreciate being by a fence where they get the equivalent of staking by growing amidst the pickets, but P. barbatus rarely ever needs staking & can stand alone. However, I'm afraid the extra moisture our one clump of 'Prairie Dusk' experiences under the pin oak may be the reason it is a bit floppy. The flower stems vary in that sometimes they stand upright on their own quite well, but then after a hard rain they'll have tipped in untidy directions.
The wild form of P. barbatus blooms red & the spike opens up into more of a spray of blooms than is the case with the 'Prairie Dusk' cultivar. It is native of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah & Mexico, & one of the most adaptable to garden conditions.
The tubular flowers are sometimes described as looking like shark heads with the mouths full open. The lower petal folds down to better invite hummingbirds. You can make out this feature in the 'Prairie Dusk' photo; this feature is lacking in the P. x campanulatus cultivars like 'Garnet' & 'Sour Grapes.' The inner throat of Prairie Dusk's funnels are white-striped, & the front of the dangling tongue is also vertically striped forming the "beard." The inner striping is what causes these flowers to really appear "lit from within."
Not all penstemons have this reflexed lower lip-beard, but others have one large, sterile, furry stamen that pokes out to attract pollinators to the other four smaller fertile stamens (the name Penstemon means "Five Stamens"). So one way or the other they have the bearded tongues that give penstemons their common names "Beard Tongue" or "Beardlip." Though those names are used interchangeably for any species, because P. barbatus has the bearded lip rather than the bearded tongue, it is slightly more apt to be called Beardlip.
Penstemon strictus x gloxinoides 'Midnight Blue'
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