Penstemon, also known as Beardtongue, is the largest genus of flowering plants endemic to North America. There are over 260 species, 6 of which are native to K-Country. Over 20 cultivars of Penstemon have been developed to grow in home gardens, too. Our naturally dry climate with low humidity enables gardeners to grow a lot of different Beardtongues, both horticultural hybrids and native versions. We freely admit to having terrible trouble telling them all apart; in our first version of this page, we misidentified both plants pictured!
To try and keep it simple, we’re just going to look at two with blue blossoms: Penstemon elipticus and Penstemon procerus.
Penstemon procerus – Small-Flowered Beardtongue
Small-Flowered Beardtongue, also known as Slender Blue Beardtongue or Penstemon, lives up to its name with smaller, delicate blue to purple blossoms measuring around 1-2 centimetres (0.4-0.8 inches) in length. Small-flowered Penstemon typically grows to be 15-45 centimeters (6-18 inches) in height. Its slender stems support a profusion of smaller droopy flowers, creating a charming display and attracting a LOT of bees.
Small-Flowered Beardtongue can be found in a variety of habitats, including open meadows, rocky slopes, and dry, well-drained areas. It ranges from south of Colorado to almost Alaska, from the west Coast to the eastern edges of the mountains and into the prairie. It is more common in the southern 2/3rds of its range. The leaves of Penstemon procerus are generally lance-shaped and usually have smooth edges (but can be slightly toothed), and are opposite along the stem. While normally some shade of blue, the flowers can also be into the purples, too.
Penstemon ellipticus – Oval-Leaved Penstemon
Penstemon ellipticus, also known as the Elliptic-leaved, Egg-leaved, Oval-leaved or Rocky-ledge Penstemon/Beardtongue, is another lovely blue-flowered Penstemon species found in Kananaskis Country. The leaves of Penstemon ellipticus are, as you might guess, oval or elliptical, smooth or slightly toothed, and remain the same size up the stem. They, too, are oppositely arranged, like all Penstemon species. While normally in blue tones, the flowers can be also be pink or white.
This species, pictured at right, has a much smaller range than Small-Flowered; just a narrow swath of the mountains of southern Idaho north to around Jasper. It is much more likely to be found at drier, rockier, and higher elevations. Unlike Small-Flowered, it’s almost a ground hugger, and only gets to be about 5-15 cm tall. It’s a hard flower to find when it grows where Pika live, because it’s a favourite food of Pika; they graze off the flowers not long after they emerge. It’s considered a “woody” species of Penstemon, given the woodiness of the stems at the base. Most other Penstemon species are herbaceous and not woody.
See some of the other pretty flowers of K-Country here!