Current obsession: Penstemon digitalis (beardtongue/foxglove beardtongue)
Updated: Mar 2
My crush de jour resulted from a weekend away when I kept spotting a roadside wildflower that I couldn't identify. I presumed it was native as it was mostly in naturalized areas but I quickly became obsessed, needing to know what it was. Then I proceeded to read everything I could find about the flower.
Knowing that I'm becoming more and more obsessed with native flowers, I get pop quizzed in the car when traveling with my family. What's that? What about that? Wait... How do you know that? Thankfully, I'm getting good at the common ones and even some grasses but this flower had me stumped. I knew I needed something to go on if I was going to ID it, and I knew that my cell signal was unreliable at best where we were going. The crunch was on. What was this specimen standing tall but dainty and lanky all at the same time, blooming in pure white among the clustered white flowers of common yarrow (Achillea millefolium)?
From seemingly nowhere, a name leapt to mind, Penstemon I wondered. How could that be right though, I don't know squat about Penstemon. I knew it was a plant and that's about it. I didn't know if it was native and I couldn't even be sure where I'd learned that name.
By this time, we'd reached our destination and miraculously there was a single specimen on the edge of the woods near our cabin. If I could get a signal, I could find out if this random plant name that popped to mind was even close to correct.
As the clouds cleared following a brief shower, I stepped onto the deck where I would get the strongest signal possible. I settled into a chair and searched Penstemon, still skeptical of my epiphany and mostly believing this search would result in an elimination instead of confirmation.
Cliffhanger alert... my signal waned and I had to wait for the results.
What was this specimen standing tall but dainty and lanky at the same time, blooming in pure white among the clustered white flowers of common yarrow (Achillea millefolium)?
Some time passed, conversations were had and disagreements between children were settled before I returned to my phone. Unattended, the signal had been regained and the browser was providing images of... what? The same plant I saw along the roadsides? Seriously!?! I was right!
A few months have passed since that trip and I've continued to learn more about Penstemon digitalis, a plant native to mixed grass prairies. Every spring, I look around my yard and realize I have very little for the early pollinators, which has put me on the hunt for earlier blooming plants and this one fits that bill. In fact, this plant is in the same family as a garden center favorite for early spring in my climate - Snapdragons!
Between the shadows cast by my house and the three trees fitted into my backyard, I have several areas that mimic woodland edges in terms of light. Penstemon can handle these conditions along with my clay soil.
I've found it a little tricky to locate seeds. With natives, I always try to find seeds as close to me as possible, making Native American Seed and Wildseed Farms, both in Texas, favorite native seed sources. Unfortunately, they didn't have seeds for this one.
This is when I'll often navigate to Etsy as there are many seed savers and small farms selling their own harvested seed on this site. Still the few results for these seeds were from areas with milder heat or more reliable moisture. Thankfully, some of the more notable native seed sources such as Prairie Moon Nursery, American Meadows and Prairie Nursery carry seeds, so I placed an order. After months of drooling over the thought of this plant, finally, I'm ready to start some.
North American native found primarily from Louisiana through Wisconsin and north of the Ohio River valley into Pennsylvania
One of the earlier blooming native plants. It may begin blooming as early as April, though it typically blooms in May and June, possibly into July
A member of the Scrophulariacea family, which includes Snapdragons
Shares "digitalis" in its latin name with Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) due to the similarity in blossom shape
Neither Penstemon or Beardtongue appear on the ASPCA list of plants poisonous to dogs, cats or horses
Food source for many native bees and hummingbirds
Suitable for rain gardens; likes prairies but can tolerate woodland edges; withstands clay soil