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Penstemon 'Husker Red'

Last year I planted Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red' for the first time. The plant took the summer to establish itself, and while I enjoyed the distinctive maroon tinted foliage, there were no blooms. This year the airy white flowers, with a hint of pink, have proven to be worth the wait.

Penstemon, also called 'Beardtongue', has five stamens. Four are fertile. A fifth, enlarged one is sterile and quite hairy, as seen below, and gives the plant its common name.

I put Penstemon 'Husker Red' in the herb bed, and it is blooming now, along with purple salvia, chives, and knockout roses.

The flowers attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. One can remove spent blossoms to encourage re-blooming, but one should let some flowers go to seed to feed the songbirds. The sturdy upright stems grow about two to three feet tall. Taller types of penstemon may need support. So far mine are not floppy at all, and I have not needed to stake them. 

Native to many parts of North America, there are varieties of penstemon growing in hardiness zones 3-9. Most are evergreen to semi-evergreen, especially in milder climates. Although some penstemons will tolerate light shade, most prefer full sun, and foliage color and bloom production will be best with at least eight hours of sun per day. Penstemon likes well drained, neutral, even poor soil. It needs no more than a single application of organic fertilizer once a year, and mulching should be minimized to discourage crown rot. It is draught tolerant and pest and deer resistant. Nor is it prone to diseases, though it may experience root rot in consistently wet soil and may suffer from mildew in extremely humid, crowded conditions. The herb bed is raised about a foot and is filled with better draining soil than my native clay. 'Husker Red' is said to be a good penstemon for moist soil and humid conditions. Time will tell how it holds up to my steamy summers, but so far it is doing well.

Penstemon is best propagated by division or cuttings. I am already thinking of new places to plant this great, low-care perennial.

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Reader Comments (17)

Leaving a few seeds for the birds may or may not be wise. I've had Husker Red for years and have never seen any bird feeding on the seeds. However, I did just spend about two hours yesterday removing some of the hundreds of seedlings that pop up. The first year they bloomed I did no dead heading...and I'm still paying for that. It is a rampant, rampant self-seeder if you leave the seed heads on....be prepared!

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercarolee snyder

carolee I didn't know it was an aggressive seeder. I have used Husker Red in landscapes before, I agree its a good performer. The foliage definitely is of high contrast. I have a penstemon "Elfin Pink" about to bloom, with Red Rocks soon to follow. Nice photos.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreggo

I love Penstemons. I've found a few that don't need perfect drainage, like Gulf Coast Penstemon, although it is short-lived. Do you have that one? It looks like you do in the picture with the salvia, chives and Knockout. Smooth and Foxglove Beardtongue are really flexible too. l'm starting them from seed this year side by side to see if I can tell which is which.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSweetbay

I always think of Husker Red as the 'different' Penstemon! needing more damp, shady conditions than all the others. Last year I was surprised just how little water a pale pink penstemon, I planted the year before, needed even in my drought conditions. It didn't seem to seed itself but I took cuttings in the autumn and they are all new plants now.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I have this penstemon too and I simply love it! The foliage too is very decorative being coloured red.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commentervesna

That's a beautiful variety of Penstemon. I don't usually think of white flowers when I think of Penstemons. I have a number of our native variety, Penstemon heterophylla, planted here. I was concerned our soils would be too lean, but they seem to be thriving really well, and are reportedly deer resistant too. Once I propagate a few more I might test that theory by planting them outside the deer fence and see how they do! ;)

I love this plant and use it as much for it's foliage as it's flowers. I have it self seeding all over too, but I leave them because they seem to be coming up in just the right spots.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

I love them Deb! Had them up north and was so glad to see them here in the garden! Spread them around! No one can have too many Beardtongue!! Up north I had wild ones known as "hairy beardtongue" YUCK!! hahahahaha!

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEve

I love this reliable plant and I hope it survived the floods in my garden...it is so hardy

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

I have tried to get this plant growing in my garden without success. It is so beautiful. Nice to see your beautiful photos.

Beautiful pictures of the penstemon, and a lovely view of your garden. I have this variety too, and many more, since penstemons are my favorite companion plants for roses. Great close-ups of the flowers, thanks for posting.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMasha

I absolutely love this plant. I put in a stand of five Huskers Red and they have never failed to please me, both the foliage and the frilly blooms. I'm glad you are enjoying yours.

May 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

I have Husker Red, too, and love it. Although it's not blooming now, I always look forward to its deep red foliage in the spring. It is one of the first to begin growing. Mine is now a huge clump and has always been trouble-free. The flowers are beautiful and deserve a close up look as in your wonderful photos.

May 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthevioletfern

What a beautiful addition to your lovely garden!

May 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa and Robb

I love the wild look of your gardens! I'm also a big fan of Penstamons. They do very well around here. Though I wonder if this particular variety requires more water? I'm pretty good at killing off the Huskers...

I had a couple and lost them in the first year. Even provided the poor soil - but the UK winter wet is the commonest killer. Your gorgeous images show me what I'm missing and your natural planting brings out the best of their spired beauty - much better than bedding swathes.

May 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura @ PatioPatch

Fab plant and p[erfect feel for your garden, because it has a kind of woodland look to it in those fotos!

May 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Webber
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