Beavers at the bottom of our garden
Praise for our worst invasive plant

New penstemons: delightful - or dead

Penstemon-Prairie-Twilight-_J029064 Last spring, the good people at the American offshoot of Blooms of Bressingham sent us some new penstemons to try. One of them, 'Prairie Delight', is (as Brits used to say) in its pomp at the moment – that is, it's looking wonderful. The others are dead. Let me tell you more.

Penstemon 'Prairie Delight' is a lovely thing. Created by the world's top penstemon expert, Dr. Dale Lindgren at the University of Nebraska where, believe me, it gets cold in the winter, it combines the blood of at least three different American native species - P. brevisepalus, P. gentianoides and P. parryi - although it seems there may be a little from other species in there somewhere as well.

Its spring rosettes are strongly red-tinted so you know you have Penstemon-Prairie-Twilight-_J029085 something interesting right from the start and then by early June it's sent up these red-tinted vertical stems… Well, you can see from the pictures (click to enlarge) how pretty the flowers are. We have it in three different spots, as long as it gets plenty of light it seems to thrive.

Contrast that with the four others we tried, all penstemons in the more flamboyant British style and none worth growing here: 'Sweet Joanne', 'Pensham Amelia Jayne', 'Pensham Elanor Young' and 'Pensham Czar' (below, click to enlarge). These have larger flowers, at their best (that would be in Britain) they're more dramatic, they're more juicy in their growth, they start to flower later, they continue for longer - and here in Pennsylvania they're all dead. What's worse, only two of them flowered at all last year, 'Pensham Amelia Jayne' and 'Pensham Czar', and those two were very sparse.

To be fair, I know the winters are too cold for them here. But I expected a really colorful display in their first and only summer. We put some in a large container in a really sunny spot, the others went in a new bed that gets at least half a day's sun. They grew well, but even those that flowered were not impressive – spindly and sparse.
I look forward to trying 'Prairie Delight' back in England, perhaps it will be as good as it is here in Pennsylvania or perhaps it will be poor. The others I know do well back in Britain, I've seen them looking superb.

And that's the thing: until you actually grow them you never know. The nurseries will tell you they're wonderful, but you never know till you try. That's why it's so valuable that growers like Blooms of Bressingham send out new plants for people like me to assess. I grow them, I take note. And, although I don’t always write them up as I have done here, growing them will inform my writing about them for years. 'Prairie Delight' is going straight into my new plants lecture.


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Hmm... We had 'Sweet Joanne' at the nursery last year and it bloomed really heavily in pots. No special treatment. I don't think any of us took them home to try though. Will look if we have any still out there. I' interested to try 'Prairie Delight'. We usually have really good luck with the P. digitalis selections - 'Dark Towers' has been fabulous for us. But then, the species grows wild by the roadsides. Maybe our hotter summers help harden them off a bit more than they do for you out east?

luise h.

Graham, do try Penstemon "Red Husker". I also live in Pa and that is one of my very favorites. Love the burgundy stems and leaves early in the season, they change to green later on.The flowers are lovely white bells with a pink blush. Our Hummingbirds enjoy them too.
I would love to get on a list to try plants, you are so lucky.

luise h.

Maybe you would like a peek into my Garden
Thank you, I enjoy your Newsletter.

Graham Rice

Yes, gardenercaleb and louise h, I've grown both 'Husker Red' and 'Dark Towers' and both do very well in north east PA. 'Prairie Delight' is much shorter, which in our border is very useful, and has real style. It will be interesting to see for how long it flowers...

'Sweet Joanne' is going into its third year in my garden (z6 Ontario), and has done remarkably well, flowering prolifically right now, and then somewhat less for the rest of the summer. No problems with hardiness here.

Graham Rice

Good to hear that 'Sweet Joanne' is doing so well in Ontario. We're z5 so I suppose it's just too cold. But it never flowered anyway, in spite of its strong growth.


'Sweet Joanne' is the best Penstemon I've ever grown. It has been blooming constantly since May. It's now September and the plants are still loaded. I have never seen a Penstemon bloom so much. It is a nice, compact plant too.

Graham Rice

Thanks Clint, that's really interesting - where do you garden?


I'm in West Tennessee. I have it in full sun. It was a very hot summer this year. I am going to plant more of them because it looks very good behind my Ice Plant edging. Give it another chance. It deserves it!

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