Know your Penstemons

Jul 21, 2021
How did a group of delicate blooms end up with the less than elegant common name of beardtongue? It’s all about the flower. Get to know a few of the most common penstemon species you may see around Central Oregon.

by Maret Pajutee

Many wildflowers have lyrical common names, names like blazing star, fairy slipper, or buttercup. So how did a group of delicate blooms end up with the less than elegant common name of beardtongue?

It’s all about the flower. The scientific name for this group of plants is penstemon which is derived from the Greek words penta (five) and stemon (stamen). This describes the flowers five stamens, which are the male parts of a flower that produce pollen. In penstemons, one of the five stamens is sterile, looks different than the others, and is often covered with hairs. To some it resembled a hairy tongue surrounded by a lip shaped flower or beardtongue. Penstemons are the largest genus of flowering plants found only in North America. The Native Plant Society of Oregon counts 46 Penstemon species as native to the state.

Common plant names are fun but also confusing. There are many flowers called spring beauty. Other plants have multiple common names. That's why it’s helpful to start learning scientific or Latin names if you are serious about identifying a plant. Let’s get to know a few of the most common penstemon species you may see in our ponderosa pine or mixed conifer forests, meadows, shrub-steppes, or subalpine areas, including Deschutes Land Trust Preserves.

Penstemon fruticosus or shrubby penstemon in bloom above Whychus Creek. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon fruticosus or shrubby penstemon in bloom above Whychus Creek. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon fruticosus or the shrubby penstemon are a spectacular sight in full bloom on road cuts and rock cliffs. This penstemon forms mats or little penstemon shrubs. The flowers are large and lavender to blue-purple and have 2 deep folds on the lower lip of the flower. The leaves have edges like a serrated knife and pointy tips.








Penstemon specious or the royal or showy penstemon on a sandy roadside. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon specious or the royal or showy penstemon on a sandy roadside. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon specious or the royal or showy penstemon is a sturdy looking beauty with large flowers in shades of light to deep blue, lavender, or purple. The flowers usually have white throats and are often mostly on one side of the stem. Leaves are smooth, lance shaped, and clasp the stem a bit at their base. They are often found in drier sandy soils.








Penstemon humilis or lowly penstemon in a ponderosa pine forest. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon humilis or lowly penstemon in a ponderosa pine forest. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon humilis or the lowly penstemon is a common sight in ponderosa pine forests and shrub-steppe. It has deep blue flowers with shadings of pink or purple and small spade or spoon shaped leaves at the base. Have you ever rubbed the whitish bloom off a ripe plum? The bluish green leaves of this humble penstemon have a little whitish bloom on them. This is called glaucous in technical botany speak. They are arranged in a basal rosette or cluster around the base of the plant, in the shape of a rose.





Penstemon euglaucus or glaucous penstemon in a mixed conifer forest Photo: Gerald D. Carr, courtesy of Oregon Flora project.
Penstemon euglaucus or glaucous penstemon in a mixed conifer forest Photo: Gerald D. Carr, courtesy of Oregon Flora project.
Penstemon euglaucus or the glaucous penstemon almost forms a ground cover in more moist forest openings. The leaves have the same bluish green bloom as Penstemon humilis, giving this species its name. It also has a basal rosette of leaves, but the leaves are oval to lance shaped. The flowers are deep blue with a pale-yellow beard (remember the beardtongue?).








Penstemon cinicola or ash penstemon near a subalpine lake. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon cinicola or ash penstemon near a subalpine lake. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon cinicola or ash penstemon is found at higher elevations growing in dry sandy soil. Its’ leaves are smooth and green without powdery bloom or hairs, a character called glabrous. The leaves are linear, folded lengthwise, and curved backwards. Flowers are blue-purple in color, and hairless except for hairs on the floor of the mouth and on the beardtongue.







Penstemon peckii or Peck’s penstemon (pink morph), a rare plant found only in Sisters, OR. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon peckii or Peck’s penstemon (pink morph), a rare plant found only in Sisters, OR. Photo: Maret Pajutee.
Penstemon peckii or Peck’s penstemon is a rare species found only in the Sisters area, in moist places in dry forests and meadows. Flower color is not much help in identifying this delicate beauty because the plant has 7 genetically determined color morphs ranging from blues to purples to pink to even white. A good characteristic is the lack of leaves around the base of the stem- if you feel the base, its almost woody. The flowers have tiny sticky hairs, a character called glandular. Learn more about Peck's penstemon.





When you start classifying things it can get complicated in the science of systematics. Plant names change and plant families get rearranged. The older botany nerds in the crowd may be surprised, as I was, to learn the genus penstemon has been moved from the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae) to the Plantain Family (Plantaginaceae), based on studies of plant evolutionary relationships from the comparisons of DNA sequences. It will take time for botany guides to catch up, but newer sources on the internet reflect this change.

No matter what we call them, the penstemons are a fascinating and diverse group of wildflowers worth seeking out on your wildflower rambles in your neighborhood, on Deschutes Land Trust Preserve trails, or your National Forests.




Maret Pajutee
is a retired Forest Service ecologist. She worked for more than 25 years protecting the natural resources of the Sisters Ranger District. She is an expert on the rare Peck’s penstemon, a wildflower found only in Sisters and nowhere else in the world.




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