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Pretty penstemon with a funny name needs little water to look its best


's beardtongue is a California native that loves dry summer weather. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

’s beardtongue, a California native, thrives without summer irrigation

By  Debbie Arrington

Some of the most colorful water-wise choices for California summer gardens are plants that grow here naturally: California natives.

My favorite right now is making a violet splash throughout the mountains in the southern half of our state, but it’s just as at home in dusty Sacramento.

It’s ’s beardtongue, a pretty penstemon that lives up to its reputation as a summer snapdragon. Bees and hummingbirds love this wildflower with its striped throat and pleasant scent. It’s perfect in rock gardens or other places that need a burst of bright color. Tolerant of full sun, it loves a spot with a little afternoon shade – as long as it has excellent drainage.

With 2-foot flower spikes above low-growing foliage, ’s beardtongue ( Penstemon grinnellii ) – also known as the southern woodland penstemon – is native to pine and oak forests in the foothills and mountains from the southern Sierra down to the San Bernardino National Forest, where our family owns a cabin. The hills around our place are dotted with these eye-catching flowers, which keep blooming for several weeks with no summer irrigation (although it appreciates an occasional July shower).

This deep-rooted perennial gets almost all the water it needs in winter and spring. Even after a bone-dry start to 2022, these drought-tolerant natives have thrived. They’ve bloomed profusely for more than six weeks so far and show no signs of letting up.

In a suburban landscape, ’s beardtongue is an excellent companion to members of the sage family. Both like life on the dry side, need good drainage and attract lots of pollinators.

In the wild, it’s found from 800 to 9,000 feet in elevation. As long as it’s not babied, this penstemon can adapt to the valley, too.

Here’s how native-plant specialist
Las Pilitas Nursery describes ’s beardtongue:

“A very showy rock garden plant. Needs perfect drainage, will survive in clay as long as planted on a slope and not watered in the summer. Do not even try in a wet summer climate. The flowers look pretty enough to eat (I don't think they’d kill you) and are worth growing just to shock your neighbors. … Plant them all in a garden with sages and you'll have a wild place full of color and life. You'll also have fits figuring out what is what.”

It will live in soils from “almost gravel to almost cement,” says Las Pilitas, which is one of several nurseries that usually stock this perennial.

For more on this penstemon and where to find it for your garden: .

's beardstongue
's beardtongue is a low-growing perennial with 2-foot flower spikes.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Sept. 24:

This week our weather will be just right for fall gardening. What are you waiting for?

* Now is the time to plant for fall. The warm soil will get these veggies off to a fast start.

* Keep harvesting tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons and eggplant. Tomatoes may ripen faster off the vine and sitting on the kitchen counter.

* Compost annuals and vegetable crops that have finished producing.

* Cultivate and add compost to the soil to replenish its nutrients for fall and winter vegetables and flowers.

* Fertilize deciduous fruit trees.

* Plant onions, lettuce, peas, radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, bok choy, spinach and potatoes directly into the vegetable beds.

* Transplant cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower as well as lettuce seedlings.

* Sow seeds of California poppies, clarkia and African daisies.

* Transplant cool-weather annuals such as pansies, violas, fairy primroses, calendulas, stocks and snapdragons.

* Divide and replant bulbs, rhizomes and perennials. That includes bearded iris; if they haven’t bloomed in three years, it’s time to dig them up and divide their rhizomes.

* Dig up and divide daylilies as they complete their bloom cycle.

* Divide and transplant peonies that have become overcrowded. Replant with “eyes” about an inch below the soil surface.

* Late September is ideal for sowing a new lawn or re-seeding bare spots.

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