Penstemons Are Overrated
We all like to see the spring penstemon blooms with their hot pinks, fiery reds, and purple spikes. Of course the hummingbirds really like them, too. But now it is June, the temperatures are in the mid 90's and with about 9% humidity, the question is: what have you done for us lately?
You sure were hot stuff in the spring after the winter moisture but guess what, so was everything else. It is easy to act like bigshots in the days of warm days and cold nights. What I really want to see are plants that thrive in the heat and are hitting their prime right now. Plants that are blooming and aren't fussy about soil. Penstemons are easy to over water and rot if the soil doesn't drain well. It would be nice if these plants could bloom through the fall during the hummingbird migration. I believe what I am looking for are plants called agastaches.
Agastaches (pronounced however you want because pronunciation of plant names is overrated also) are native plants to the higher areas of the Southwest that meet all the criteria that we mentioned above and more. Right now there is an agastache called Desert Sunrise which is in full bloom with 3' tall spikes of pink and orange flowers. Some people might even describe them as lavender and coral. Agastache rupestris is a native to Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico . It is just starting to flower with orange flowers. This plant can grow anywhere from full sun to mostly shade. I have one planted in a heavy clay soil and it is doing fine. Best of all the leaves smell like root beer.
A few years ago someone gave me an agastache from the side of a creek by Rodeo, New Mexico . It had purple flowers. Not only did the hummingbirds, like it but after it set seed the yellow finches came to eat them. I guess they didn't eat all of the seeds because this plant came up on its own in several spots the next year. Ever seen finches on a penstemon?
I have to admit we are a little bit late to jump on the agastache bandwagon in SE Arizona . These plants have been a staple of New Mexico landscaping for a while. They got their big break a few years ago when somebody writing in one of those over slick magazines (might have been Sunset) wrote about visiting a garden in New Mexico where the hummers were ignoring all the rest of the plants and just feeding on agastaches. Considering the source, and that I am usually skeptical about claims like that, I basically ignored it. (Actually hummers can be very picky and will ignore plants that used to be favorites if there is another plant around that catches their fancy. They are definitely from the “what have you done for me lately” school of thought.)
In the interest of fairness there is a huge bloom of the native red penstemon (Penstemon barbatus) going on right now. We saw it all the way from Canelo to Glenwood NM . recently. That is a good plant which works in a variety of situations. It would work well planted with some agastaches. Yup, you could work in a few. Just remember, friends don't let friends plant too many penstemons.