Hairy Penstemon

Penstemon hirsutus

Description & Overview

Hairy Penstemon is a native Wisconsin perennial with small, tubular flowers beloved by bees and humans alike. Each inch-long flower is light purple, blue, and white and consists of five petals fused into a tube, the ends of which form two lips. The flowers themselves are arranged in small clusters along a hairy stem. They are eye-catching, but watching bees, and sometimes wasps and flies, wiggle their way through the lips and into the tube, can provide much entertainment. See for yourself!

May also be known as Hairy Beardtongue.


Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 12-36 inches
Mature Spread: 10-12 inches
Growth Rate: Fast
Growth Form: Upright Perennial
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade
Site Requirements: Sand, Gravel Slopes. Well-Drained Soil.
Flower: Pale Violet, blue, and/or white. Tubular.
Bloom Period: May-June
Foliage: Green, Oblong, Opposite, Serrated
Fall Color: Reddish
Fruit Notes: Capsule

Suggested Uses:

Hairy Penstemon can tolerate partial shade but if you want to rev up flower production to full throttle then plant in full sun. It is often found in sandy, gravelly, and even rocky outcroppings and on slopes in lean, drier soils. With that in mind, this is the perfect perennial to plant in an old foundation bed with rock mulch and poor soil! You’re welcome.

Use Hairy Penstemon in any restoration or naturalization project where the soil is poor.

When thoughtfully planning a native flower garden, wildflower garden, or pollinator garden, use Hairy Penstemon to fill in the bloom time between early spring bloomers (think Marsh Marigold, Hepatica) and late summer bloomers (think Liatris and Echinacea).

Wildlife Value:

Hairy Penstemon blooms at a time when there is a dearth of nectar for pollinators. When the spring bloomers are drying out and the mid-summer bloomers are yet to begin, Hairy Penstemon comes to save the day. The flowers produce an abundant amount of nectar and are visited by a wide variety of butterflies, moths, and bees. Moths seem to prefer the white flowers, likely due to their increased visibility at night.

Hairy Penstemon flowers evolved alongside pollinators resulting in a shape that encourages their pollination. The bottom lip acts as a landing pad and the bee is enticed further into the tube by bright purple streaks that line the tunnel. The bee is rewarded with nectar. In return, the narrow tunnel formed by the fused petals forces the bee to brush against the pollen. The pollen sticks to the bee until it arrives at the next flower, where it squeezes through the tube once again, brushes up again the flower’s reproductive parts, effectively pollinating the next flower, and is rewarded with nectar once again.

Hairy Penstemon is the host plant for the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton), a butterfly that is common throughout Wisconsin. You may also see Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting the flowers at a time when their main source of nectar, Wild Columbine flowers, begins to fade.

Maintenance Tips:

This plant thrives in lean, thin, poor, well-draining soils. A site with rich, heavier soils may shorten the longevity of this plant in the landscape. If this is the case, let the plant go to seed to ensure that these beautiful flowers pop up in the garden year after year.

Pests/Problems:

This plant has a Conservation Status of Special Concern in Wisconsin – habitat loss and herbicide usage contribute to the decline of wild populations.

Deer avoid this plant in general although a fawn may take the occasional nibble.

Leaf Lore:

Name: The genus name, Penstemon, originates from the Greek word ‘Penta,’ meaning “five” and ‘stamon’ meaning “stamens”. Penstemon does have five stamen though only one is fertile and the remaining four are sterile.

The species name, hirsutus, means “hairy”, after the hairy flower stalk.

Companion Plants:

Pair with other natives that enjoy similar soil types such as Wild Strawberry, Carolina Rose, Pale Purple Coneflower, Prickly Pear, Butterflyweed, Big Bluestem, Sea Thrift, Sedum, and Yarrow.




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