Friday, December 5, 2014

Prince of penstemons: the true "Pikes Peak" penstemon!

Penstemon brandegei
Penstemons have become quite common in nurseries, at least in the Denver area. I can remember that when I began my career at the Botanic Gardens in 1980 the only penstemons that one occasionally encountered in nurseries were one of the Viehmeyer hybrids (a dwarf pink barbatus--can't even remember what name it was sold under) and the relatively recently introduced Penstemon pinifolius somehow caught on in the highly atrophied perennial industry of the time.

Nowadays, if you shop around Denver garden centers, you can come up with a dozen or more species without even trying very hard--many thanks to the Plant Select program*, which has promoted the glorious dark blue Penstemon mensarum (q.v.) from Western Colorado. The violet blue Penstemon strictus 'Bandera' was probably first grown publicly at Denver Botanic Gardens in the early 1980's--but developed by the Los Lunas Plant Center in New Mexico: this has become almost a commonplace in Denver area gardens (it is so vigorous, long lived and showy)--but when I travel around the rest of the country the plant really barely exists in horticulture. Do we really need another bright blue penstemon in our gardens? The answer, friends, is an emphatic yes! The picture above shows Penstemon brandegei in the wild, on Pikes Peak (locus classicus for the taxon--although it's common from there all the way to New Mexico and a bit south. There are breathtaking stands of this on Raton Pass in late June and July most years.

Same plant, with a hand, for scale

As you can see, it's a tad stockier than its two other blue cousins that are closely related--and tends to bloom over a month later than mensarum in gardens, and a bit later than strictus as well. If you grow all three in proximity, it is very likely you will end up with some very vigorous intermediates with some new shades of blue--but thus far I have not observed any hybridization in any gardens I've seen these in. The later bloom time, the more robin's egg blue of brandgei, and the fact that I've been seeing it in several local gardens has prompted me to dedicate this posting to it: the West is chockablock full of glorious blue penstemons. But I'm not sure any have quite this fabulous shade of blue, and not many are proving to be so amenable in gardens--as you shall see!

Looks blurry? click on it and it will magically clear up!
Here is P. brandegei growing at Mike Kintgen's gem of a garden--I mistook it at first for the fabulous Kendrick Lake garden in Lakewood that has inspired so many local gardeners (similar mulch): Mike's garden has far more rare plants however! And is every bit as dazzling. Do click on the fuzzy picture and stand back! (You can even zoom in on the wonderful blueness)..

I featured this picture last June in a different blog posting--the gentleman (Harold Taylor--who has subsequently sold this house and its penstemons) had led me on a fabulous field trip I'd described in that posting. This picture, however, is different here--once again looking fuzzy until you click on it: last June Facebook somehow reduced the giant files my camera takes, but now apparently it keeps the large format--but shows it as fuzzy: until you click--the cool thing is now you can ZOOM in, which if you check the other picture you will see doesn't work. Just thought you might enjoy that tidbit of info...back to the Penstemon brandegei--he's grown this in his xeriscape for years--and it's prospered and spread--a good thing in a penstemon (or any other dazzling blue flower--of which there are not that many, you know!)
Closer view (do click on it!)
Perhaps this is the time to break the bad news: some botanists have subsumed P. brandegei under the umbrella of P. alpinus, a generally smaller, less showy but common plant found in the mountains around Denver (which moreover is not even alpine despite its name: it's as montane as a plant gets around here). Even more tragically (for those who take taxonomy a tad too seriously) both taxa have been sunk under the name P. glaber--a taxon that is much commoner northward (or used to be before botanists muddled the whole thing). Of course, you can still use brandegei as a subspecies or variety, which I believe has been validly published. Or you can quietly ignore the recent lumping (as I have) and keep the more useful name. Let's not forget that botany was invented by horticulturists to help us keep our names straight: when botany ceases to perform that function effectively, I believe horticulturists have every right to quietly shelve the Junior "science" and proceed sensibly on their own ("botany", btw, is not so purely science after all--since taxonomy especially is at LEAST as much about language and communication--which is pure art, my dear friends). I suggest you re-read that previous sentence at least once and let it sink in--I've never read that sentiment spelled out quite so bluntly (or accurately, if you don't mind my pluming myself just a bit)...

 I conclude with this impressionistic shot of a sizeable bank of P. brandegei (read last sentence for clarification as to why I persist with the name) growing at the Colorado Springs xeriscape garden, which I talk about in the Blog posting just prior to this (in fact, if you look at that posting, you'll see a picture of this same clump taken from a distance with the wonderful rock garden behind).

So I hope I've convinced you to seek this plant out (good luck--it's not by any means common in cultivation as it should be). And perhaps I've convinced you that it's distinct from other plants in the Habroanthus group like strictus and mensarum--or its closer cousins.from further north. Perhaps some clever nurseryman will take this on and make it available for all of us--come to think of it, I don't have it in my garden either!

* I mention Plant Select above (and have linked to it): a program near and dear to my heart. Plant Select has a x Mexicali type penstemon hybridized by Bruce Meyer using Mexican and probably more Southwestern type penstemon germplasm: one of the cultivars of this cross has been named 'Pikes Peak' although no genes from any of the half dozen or more penstemons that grow on Pikes Peak were used in breeding the x Mexicali grex. Pikes Peak was used as a cultivar name just because it's a well known locale in Colorado.

The Plant Select propagation committee pooh-poohs my suggestion that the program promote Penstemon strictus 'B andera' as well--since that taxon performs so well in gardens--but the mostly Colorado residing group thinks the plant is well known. They don't get around like me, obviously!

1 comment:

  1. I think the biggest problem facing Penstemon in the nursery trade is that so many are short lived. Often they live five years or less. This habit means that Penstemons, like many rock garden plants, are best grown from direct sown seed.

    I expect nurseries will continue to sell a few. I think most plants sold at nurseries go to novices who end up killing them. If a novice gets five years good years out of a plant then they should be very happy. As long as the plants keep customers happy then nurseries will keep selling them. However, I think the more knowledgable plantsmen/women will always propagate Penstemon from seed.



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