Colourful penstemon brightens up borders
IF YOU want elegant colour in a summer flower border, it is hard to beat penstemon. Related to foxgloves, which is very obvious from the trumpet-shape of the flowers, penstemon flowers are not as long as those of foxglove but they are more flared at the mouth.
The penstemon flowers are carried on a central stem that is thinner and shorter than foxglove, and the flower stalks connecting each flower are lighter, giving the whole plant a light and airy appearance. Penstemon has a wide range of colours -- from white and pale pink, bright scarlet-red, pale blue-purple to deep wine colours.
Over the years, the penstemon that caught the attention of most people is the variety 'Garnet', now renamed 'Andenken an Friedrich Hahn'. The name 'Garnet' was a very descriptive name because of the deep wine-red colour of the flowers.
There are lots of other varieties, such as 'Schoenholzeri', formerly known as 'Firebird' with bright scarlet flowers. 'Mother of Pearl' has pale blue-purple flowers with touches of pink and white, while 'Stapleford Gem', of similar colouring, is a real beauty.
'Apple Blossom' has large pink and white flowers and 'Juicy Grape' is blue-purple. 'Evelyn' is a dainty slender-flowered variety with pink flowers. 'Pennington Gem' has soft pink flowers and 'Blackbird' is dark wine-red.
The best time to buy penstemons is when they are in flower and you will be able to see the size and colour of the flowers and make a preferred choice. Penstemons are sturdy upright plants that carry a procession of tubular flowers and need no staking or tying.
Although penstemon is very colourful and gives a real lift to the border, it is not aggressive and goes well with other flowers. It looks great with ornamental grasses of any kind or sedges and looks well with achillea in shades of orange, paprika and dust-yellow.
Penstemons are easy to grow in ordinary soil, well-drained, and in a sunny position. They make big, woody-based plants after a year or two and may need cutting back, which should be done in late spring. The stems are quite stiff at the base but not actually woody.
Do not forget to take a few cuttings in mid-July to mid-August each year as insurance against losing the parent plant to a frosty winter. The cuttings root easily and will grow very fast to replace lost plants. When taking the cuttings, use fresh shoots that have not yet flowered, low down on the plant.