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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 March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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