Drought Tolerant Penstemon Are a Hummingbird Favorite

The beautiful, flowering spikes of drought tolerant penstemon transform the garden in spring and summer, attracting hummingbirds from near and far.

Pink flowering parry's penstemon (Penstemon parryi).
Pink flowering Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi).

Penstemon, also known as ‘beardtongue’, are a great addition to the drought tolerant garden with their flowering spikes that color the landscape in spring and summer.  Each flowering spike consists of multiple blossoms ranging in color from pale pink, rose, magenta, purple and red depending on the species.  Besides adding beauty to the garden, hummingbirds are drawn to their tubular flowers, which makes penstemon a must-have for the drought tolerant hummingbird garden.

Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii)
Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii)

Native to North America, different species of penstemon can be found growing in varied locations throughout the western half of the North American continent in places such as Canada, the Northwest, the desert Southwest, the Plains states and on down into Central America.  With over 100 species available, there is a penstemon for almost any garden.  

Parry's penstemon (Penstemon parryi)
Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi)

While penstemon may look more at home in a cottage garden with their delicate-looking blooms – remember that looks can be deceiving.  The majority of penstemon species are tough and thrive on neglect.  Their needs are few and they do best in drought tolerant gardens with well-drained soil, full sun to filtered shade and supplemental water during the warm months of the year.  Supplemental fertilizer isn’t needed and rich, fertile soil will actually decrease flowering.  These flowering perennials put on a great show, yet are truly low-maintenance.

Parry's Penstemon flower

Penstemon are quite versatile in the landscape, equally at home when planted in groups of 3 or 5 or when used in an informal garden design.  In fact, some penstemon species such as Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi) do very well in wildflower gardens because they are easy to start from seed.  When planted among lupine, the pink and purple blend of colors add a cooling touch to the landscape.  The cooler colors that penstemon add to the landscape looks great when paired with yellow-flowering perennials such as angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acualis), desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata) or yellow daisy (Euryops pectinatus), which provide a great color contrast.

Wherever you plant penstemon in the garden, be sure that it is nearby a window or by your favorite sitting area where you can see visiting hummingbirds up close.

Canyon penstemon (Penstemon pseudospectabilis)
Canyon penstemon (Penstemon pseudospectabilis)

Penstemon begin flowering in late winter in areas with mild winters with blooms lasting through spring.  In cooler regions, penstemons put on a show later in the season and bloom through summer.  The height of penstemons increase dramatically when in flower from their normal height of 1 – 2 ft. to all the way up to 4 ft. when in flower depending on the species.

Once the blooms have faded, prune off the flowering spikes.  When not in flower, penstemons are rather unremarkable and blend into the landscape allowing later blooming plants to take center stage.

Scented penstemon (Penstemon palmeri)
Scented penstemon (Penstemon palmeri)

I grow firecracker, Parry’s and scented penstemon species in my desert Southwest garden where they provide me with beautiful late winter and spring color that attracts the Anna’s and Costa hummingbirds nearby.  However, no matter where you live, there is a drought tolerant penstemon that will do well in your garden when giving a sunny location and well-drained soil.  Click here for more information on different penstemon species and choose one that is just right for your garden.

Noelle Johnson
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. When she is not writing or helping other people with their gardens, you can find her growing fruits and vegetables, and planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.