Check out the latest gardening obsession – Penstemons

By Mary Adams
Posted 6/17/19

Penstemons, also called beardtongues, are starting to bloom around Taos. Most common is probably the Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), which sport rich blue-purple blossoms that can be …

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Check out the latest gardening obsession – Penstemons


Penstemons, also called beardtongues, are starting to bloom around Taos. Most common is probably the Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), which sport rich blue-purple blossoms that can be seen along many roadsides around town. The red scarlet bugler (Penstemon barbatus) blooms on long stalks on the canyon walls of U.S. 64 and State Road 518. If you want to learn more about this group of colorful native wildflowers, join the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico on Wednesday (June 19). We will welcome speaker Larry Deaven whose talk is titled "The Penstemon Gardens at the Los Alamos Nature Center."

Deaven is a retiree from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he did pioneering work on the Human Genome Project. His interests include plant breeding, which led him to begin a 30-year backyard plant-breeding program with clematis species and cultivars in 1975. The program expanded rapidly when he suggested that the Los Alamos Nature Center establish a garden devoted to the genus Penstemon. Since the summer of 2015, he has planted approximately 2,500 penstemons in several gardens at the nature center representing 120 species, subspecies or varieties, and 25 cultivars.

Deaven's talk will include some introductory material about penstemons, observations on penstemon seed germination and a brief description of some of the plants in the nature center's gardens with emphasis on New Mexico natives. Photographs of the widely variant species of penstemons he has grown and planted there will accompany his presentation. The talk is at 6 p.m. Wednesday (June 19) in the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative boardroom, 118 Cruz Alta.

Penstemons, butterflies and birds

One of the glorious native penstemons in my yard, desert penstemon (Penstemon pseudospectabilis) is an absolute hummingbird magnet. Even if I have large nectar feeders in the yard, the little guys zip right past them this time of year, preferring to probe the magenta flowers of these native penstemon, then move on to the claret cup cactus. And why is that?

Many of us have heard that planting native plants on your property is important. One reason is that nesting birds are very dependent on native plants. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nest Watch monitoring program has found that 96 percent of North American land birds rear their young on insects, which are high in protein. Surprisingly, insects contain more protein per gram than beef.

While many birds will visit your seed feeders the rest of the year, Doug Tallamy, author of "Bringing Nature Home," says that insects are best for feeding growing chicks. In a landmark study, Tallamy counted chickadee parents feeding 6-9,000 caterpillars to rear one clutch of young. No wonder I see exhausted bird parents ignoring their already fledged chicks squawking for food.

The way that birds most easily find those thousands of essential caterpillars is on native plants. The Audubon Society estimates that native oaks, like Gambel oak (Quercus gambelli), also called scrub oak, support an average of 532 different moth and butterfly caterpillars. A nonnative tree such as ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) supports just five insect species. If you plant trees that caterpillars can't eat, then bird parents struggle to find enough insect larvae to feed their chicks.

The hummingbirds visiting my penstemon are likely grabbing a quick nectar drink that provides a higher caloric content than the recommended 1:4 sugar to water hummingbird solution (per Cornell Lab), while pollinating my flowers at the same time. Win-win. Then the hummingbird parents move along to feed their young with caterpillars and insects, those miniature quarter-pounders of the insect world.

Butterflies and moths are equally dependent on native plants. The National Wildlife Federation's Laura Tangley points out that "because native insects did not evolve with nonnative plants, most of them lack the ability to overcome the plants' chemical defenses so cannot eat them. Like the monarch butterfly larva, which must have milkweed to survive, more than 90 percent of moth and butterfly caterpillars eat only particular native plants or groups of native plants."

If you're a bird lover and a butterfly lover, take pride in your local plants and wildlife or just want to save on your water bill, it's not too late to add some native plants to your landscape. The summer monsoon is one of the best times to plant in Taos--fingers crossed that we get one this year. Plant native seeds or container plants then let nature do the watering for you.

(For more information see the videos "Hummingbirds of North Central New Mexico and Their Favorite Native Plants" and "Gardening for Caterpillars" on our YouTube playlist,

Mary Adams is a member of the Taos Chapter of NPSNM who shares a dryland native garden with many insects and wildlife in the middle of fragrant sage scrub terrain.

This column is printed every second Thursday of the month. For question or suggestions for hikes or speakers, contact us at, or call (575) 751-0511.


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