Desert Penstemon, Parry’s penstemon

Penstemon parryi

Desert penstemon is a short-lived perennial native to Arizona and adjacent Mexico. Its showy, deep pink flowers appear in early spring, often by late February. Attractive to hummingbirds, it is just as attractive to humans, making it a popular landscape plant in the Tucson area.

Add desert penstemon to your yard by purchasing plants, purchasing seed, or harvesting seeds from your own (or your neighbor's) plants. It grows best when planted in full sun in soil with good drainage. Other conditions may shorten its life. Be careful about irrigation - too much water, especially in summer, will cause root rot. This plant does appreciate cool roots, which you can provide by using mulch or planting near a large rock (the soil is cooler under the rock).

Flowering may be extended by cutting off the initial flowering stem just below the lowest flowers. New flower stalks will often grow from the base of the leaves below.

desert penstemon blooming at Academy Village

If you want seeds, however, you must leave the stalks on the plant until the fruit begins to open. Collect the seeds and save till fall or simply cut off the stalks and beat them against the ground where you want to plants to appear. Allowing seeds to fall to the ground will provide new plants to replace the original plants, which will die after just a few years.

This penstemon is attractive to some pests, such as aphids. Use a strong stream of water to dislodge. If infestation is heavy, try insecticidal soap. Larger pest can be picked off and crushed.

Wildlife value: very attractive to hummingbirds and bees, will also attract some of the larger butterflies

More Information

Weekly Plant on desert penstemon

Horticultural information from ASU

Horticultural information from Pima County Master Gardeners

Growing penstemon from seed from Firefly Forest

Map of distribution in US

In books:

Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes by Judy Mielke, pages 217, 220

Perennials for the Southwest by Mary Irish, page 197

 

ID Characteristics

This plant is in the Plantaginaceae - the plantain family. Many penstemon are known by the common name "beardtongue".
desert penstemon blooming at Academy Village
Desert penstemon grows to 3, perhaps 4 feet. From a clump of basal leaves, it sends up several flowering stems covered with showy dark pink flowers.
 desert penstemon blooming at Academy Village
The leaves are a blue-green. The basal leaves are about 5 inches long, wider toward the tip of the leaf. The stem leaves are opposite, long and narrow, almost clasping the stem. The leaves near the tip of the stem can be quite small.
 desert penstemon blooming at Academy Village
 
The flowers of desert penstemon are 3/4-1 inch long and about 3/4 inch wide. They grow just above the stem leaves on short stalks, usually 3 or 4 flowers together. The newest flowers are near the tip of the stem. Often new flowering stems will grow from the base of lower leaves. Cutting off the initial flowering stem will encourage this side shoots to expand and flower.
 
Flower color is a rich pink with the exact shade varying a bit from plant to plant. Each flower has 5 petals that are initially fused to form a tube, then flair open with two petals making an upper lip and 3 a lower lip. Click on the above photo to enlarge. You will be able to see the "bearded" (hairy) tongue in the lower center of the flower that gives rise to the common name.
 
The fruit is a hard capsule that opens at the top to release seed.