Firecracker Penstemon in the Landscape

firecracker-penstemon
Graham Hunter

Penstemon eatonii

Description

Bright scarlet flowers that shower from arching stems of firecracker penstemon have made this plant a favorite of many penstemon enthusiasts. The species is found throughout the West at elevations from 3,000 to 11,000 feet. It is adaptable to various soil textures but thrives in low-fertility soils. Like most penstemon species, its roots require excellent soil drainage.  The bright red tubular flower makes it a favorite nectar source for hummingbirds. The common name for penstemon is ‘beardtongue’, named for the infertile stamen that protrudes from the flower and looks like a hairy tongue. Firecracker penstemon is cold-hardy all over the Intermountain West, and preliminary common garden trials indicate that seed source should not influence its hardiness.

Cultural Requirements

  • Native Habitat: Widely distributed throughout the West.
  • Soil: Well drained, low fertility, pH 7.0-8.0
  • Cold Tolerance: Zones 3 - 7
  • Drought Tolerance: High
  • Salt Tolerance: Unknown
  • Sun/Shade Preference: Full sun to part shade
  • Propagation: Seed, stem cuttings, or division
  • Maintenance: Do not over-water or over-fertilize. Reseeds freely, so clip stalks after final bloom to prevent spreading.
  • Problems: Susceptible to lodging (stalks fall over) and root rot diseases if overwatered.

Landscape Value

  • Use in the Landscape: Borders, accents, rock gardens; often recommended as cut flowers.
  • Foliage: Basal leaves are ovate, upper leaves are opposite and lanceolate and slightly curled.
  • Inflorescence: Showy. Will re-bloom if spent flowers are removed.
  • Color: May - mid-July
  • Fruit: (seedheads) Capsule
  • Form: Clumping, erect, few to many stems
  • Texture: Medium
  • Ultimate: Size 10-40 inches
  • Rate of Growth: Medium to fast; flowers in second year.
  • Plant Community: Most communities from subalpine to salt desert shrub.
  • Availability:Utah’s Choice” selection; (visit http://www.utahschoice.org/natives/wheretobuy for more information).
  • Cultivars: ‘Richfield Selection

Propagation

To start seed indoors, cold-moist stratify for up to 112 days, and sow into container to a depth of 1/8 inch. For sowing seed outdoors, sow seed in fall and cover with1/8 inch soil. Pre-soaking seed with 500 ppm gibberellic acid (GA) prior to cold-stratification may improve germination rate. Division of mature plants may be done in spring or fall.

Additional Photos

firecracker-penstemon
USU Herbarium

References

  • Mee, W., J. Barnes, R. Kjelgren, R. Sutton, T. Cerny, and C. Johnson. 2003. Waterwise: Native Plants for Intermountain Landscapes. Utah State University Press, Logan, UT.
  • Utah Water-wise Plants (Utah Division of Water Resources). 2008. URL: http://www.waterwiseplants.utah.gov
  • USDA Plants Database. 2008. URL: http://plants.usda.gov
  • Baskin, C. C. and J.M. 2002. Propagation protocol for production of container Penstemon eatonii Gray plants; University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky. In: Native Plant Network. URL: http://www.nativeplantnetwork.org (accessed 2 January 2009). Moscow (ID): University of Idaho, College of Natural Resources, Forest Research Nursery.

Authors

Heidi Kratsch, Extension Ornamental Horticulture Specialist
Graham Hunter, Research Associate, Center for Water Efficient Landscaping

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