General: Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae). Penstemon or beardtongue species are perennial forbs or sub-shrubs to shrubs with attractive flowers. They are short to long-lived. Penstemons have opposite, entire, or toothed leaves. They have several stalked flowers or flower clusters that are borne in the axils of the upper leaves or leaflike bracts. The tubular corolla is strongly to distinctly two-lipped at the mouth with a two-lobed upper lip and a three-lobed lower lip. There are 4 anther-bearing (fertile) stamens and a single sterile stamen or staminodia that is often hairy at the tip. The fruit is a many-seeded capsule.
Palmer’s penstemon is a perennial herb to a slightly woody subshrub 5 to 14 dm tall with a thick crown. The plant is glabrous and glaucous with fleshy leaves. The leaves are dentate with the upper ones sometimes triangular. The flowers range from white to lavender-pink. Cronquist et al. (1984) recognizes three varieties and provides a key to these.
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Localities documented in Tropicos sources
United States (North America)
Note: This information is based on publications available through Tropicos and may not represent the entire distribution. Tropicos does not categorize distributions as native or non-native.
- Anonymous. 1986. List-Based Rec., Soil Conserv. Serv., U.S.D.A. Database of the U.S.D.A., Beltsville. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1103
- Munz, P. A. & D. D. Keck. 1959. Cal. Fl. 1–1681. University of California Press, Berkeley. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1717
- Munz, P. A. 1974. Fl. S. Calif. 1–1086. University of California Press, Berkeley. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1719
Palmer’s penstemon is found from New Mexico through California to Idaho. Penstemons are common to the western United States. Except for one minor species, the genus Penstemon does not occur naturally outside of North America. For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.
Adaptation: Penstemons do best on well-drained soils. Most ecotypes do well on infertile, disturbed soils. They have excellent cold winter and drought tolerance. They will tolerate weakly saline to weakly acidic sites. They are usually found in open areas, but will tolerate semi-shaded conditions. They are not tolerant of fire, but are fire resistant due to leaves staying green with relatively high moisture content during the fire season.
Palmer’s penstemon is found in blackbrush, sagebrush, Joshua tree, pinyon-juniper, and ponderosa pine communities where subsurface moisure is available from 800 to 2500 m in elevation.
Planting: These species should be seeded with a drill or broadcast at a depth of 1/4 inch or less into a firm seedbed. Ideal seeding depth is 1/8 inch. Penstemons are not recommended for single species seeding. The full seeding rate (not recommended) for these forbs-shrubs is 1.5 to 3 pounds Pure Live Seed (PLS) per acre or 20 to 26 PLS per square foot (varies somewhat by species). When used as a component of a mix, adjust to percent of mix desired. For mined lands and other harsh critical areas, doubling the seeding rate component of penstemon is not required.
The best seeding results are obtained from seeding in very early spring (because of grass component of mix) on heavy to medium textured soils and in late fall on medium to light textured soils. Late summer (August - mid September) seeding is not recommended. Dormant fall seedings (preferred seeding period for penstemons) will pre-chill seed and reduce seed dormancy, which is very strong in some species. Mulching, irrigation, and weed control all benefit stand establishment. Seedling vigor is good, but not as good as most grasses. Germination may not occur until the second growing season. Flowering should not be expected until at least the second growing season.
Stands may require weed control measures during establishment. Because penstemons are broadleaf, use of 2,4-D is not recommended. Mow weeds at or prior to their bloom stage. Grasshoppers and other insects may also damage new stands and pesticides may be needed.
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N4 - Apparently Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Throughout southwestern United States and appropriate habitats in northwest. Element found in seasonally moist blackbrush, sagebrush, joshua tree, juniper, pinyon-juniper and ponderosa pine communities.
Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status, such as, state noxious status and wetland indicator values.
Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)
Foundation and registered seed is available for each variety through the appropriate state Crop Improvement Association or commercial sources to grow certified seed.
'Cedar' Palmer penstemon was developed from seed originally collected near Cedar City in Iron County, Utah. It was developed by the U.S. Forest Service Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Provo, Utah and released by Los Lunas PMC, Utah Department of Wildlife, Colorado-Idaho-New Mexico-Utah AES, and Forest Service in 1985. It is an erect, native, perennial (short-lived, 5-7 years), cool-season, semi-evergreen forb with thick fibrous taproots. The leaves may remain green throughout the year. The flowers arise from basal clusters on tall upright stalks and are pink to lavender-pink with red-violet throats. They bloom for several weeks in late spring through early summer. It is best adapted to rocky, gravelly to clayey, weakly acidic to basic, well drained soils, 10 to 16 inch rainfall areas, at 3,500 to 6,000 feet elevation. Its intended uses are winter forage, erosion control, diversity, and beautification. Certified seed is available and the Forest Service maintains breeder seed.
Other releases include the following: 1) Alpine penstemon (P. venustus) is a selected release from seed originally collected in the Clearwater River drainage, Idaho; 2) 'Bandera' (P. strictus) Rocky Mountain penstemon was developed from seed originally collected in Torrance County, New Mexico; and 3) Firecracker penstemon (P. eatonii) is a selected release from seed originally collected near Richfield, Utah.
A number of other penstemons are seeded primarily for soil stabilization on depleted, disturbed, and erosive areas for erosion control and as ornamentals. These include low penstemon (Penstemon humilis), Rydberg penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii), and thickleaf penstemon (Penstemon pachyphyllus). No cultivar releases are known to have have been made. Please check the PLANTS database for the names of native penstemons in your state, then check with your area native plant nurseries for their availability.
Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) office for more information. Look in the phone book under ”United States Government.” The Natural Resources Conservation Service will be listed under the subheading “Department of Agriculture.”
Penstemons should be seeded in at least 36-inch rows at the rate of 2.5 pounds PLS per acre to allow mechanical weed control. The use of weed barrier material may be an alternative to allow closer spacing. They should be seeded in late fall or early winter unless seed is stratified under cool moist conditions. "The Clearwater Selection" of alpine penstemon does not require stratification. Transplants by dividing the base of older plants or from greenhouse starts can also be successfully used to establish seed fields.
Seed is generally harvested by hand stripping or by combine. Seed is mature when capsules are dry and seed is hard and dark in color. Flowering is indeterminate with mature capsules and flowers present at harvest period. Multiple harvest periods (by hand) may be necessary to maximize seed collection. Some seed will shatter once capsules open, but the capsule is upright and tends to hold seed very well. Seed can be separated from the capsule by use of a hammer mill or barley de-bearder followed by air screening. Cleaned seed should be allowed to dry and then stored in a cool dry area. An after-ripening period of 3 to 4 months is required. Seed retains viability for several years under these conditions.
Growth of penstemons begins in early spring and flowers appear in May through July depending on species. Weed control and removal of very competitive species may improve chance of establishment. Damage from wildlife and rodents may occur and they may need to be controlled. Disease problems are minimal except under irrigation. Under irrigation, fusarium wilt can be a problem.
Environmental Concerns: Penstemon species establish and spread slowly via seed distribution. They are not considered "weedy" or invasive species, but can spread into adjoining vegetative communities under ideal climatic and environmental conditions. They coexist with other native species and add biodiversity to those plant communities.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Grazing/rangeland: 'Cedar' and 'Bandera' are the only released penstemons noted to have any forage value. 'Cedar' leaves stay green throughout the growing season providing some forage value. All other varieties are considered fair to poor palatability and considered to be only incidental forage value. All
species provide diversity to the seeded plant community.
Erosion control/reclamation: All species are mentioned for their value in mixes for erosion control and beautification values.
Wildlife: Penstemons are considered desirable forages for deer, antelope, and birds either as herbage or seed. They may also provide some cover for selected small bird species. They provide diversity to the plant community.
It is found native to desert mountains from the eastern Mojave Desert in California, to eastern Nevada, northeastern Arizona, and New Mexico, and north through areas in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and eastern Washington.
Penstemon palmeri is a drought-tolerant perennial plant, preferring well draining drier soils. The plant grows in washes and bajadas, roadsides, canyon floors, creosote bush scrub, and juniper woodlands, from 1,100–2,300 metres (3,600–7,500 ft).
Penstemon palmeri, Palmer's Penstemon, is plant grows erect and may reach 2 metres (6.6 ft) in maximum height. The leaves are generally oppositely arranged and have toothed margins. The inflorescence is a panicle or raceme with small bracts.
The flower has a five-lobed calyx of sepals and a cylindrical corolla with may have an expanded throat. The staminode is partially hairy. The showy, rounded flower has large pink to violet to blue-purple petals. Occasional specimens are red, yellow, or white flowered.
There are three Penstemon palmeri varieties:
- Penstemon palmeri var. palmeri - Palmer's penstemon, most occurrences of this species are this variety.
- Penstemon palmeri var. macranthus - scented beardtongue, is endemic to the Great Basin Desert in Nevada 
- Penstemon palmeri var. eglandulosus - scented beardtongue, is limited to Utah and Arizona 
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Reportedly the var. palmeri is "used in reclamation seed mixes far outside its natural range" (J. Nachlinger, Newsl. No. Nevada NPS 24(8): 5-6, 1998); native in SW USA (fide W. Fertig, Castilleja 19(3): 7, Oct. 2000 [and presumably also native in adjacent Mexico]