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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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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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