Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Experimenting with Penstemon

One of my backyard projects was to recover a meadow area from an overgrown mass of invasive species (Multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, Autumn Olive, Tree of Heaven and Bittersweet with some poison ivy, river grape and horse nettle to boot).  Last fall and early spring I went in with a heavy duty weed whacker and a chain saw to cut down the bushes.  I treated the larger stumps with concentrated glyphosphate to finish the job.  

The most common native plant in this area is Wingstem, Verbesina alternifolia, which is a tall nice looking, if somewhat coarse, perennial flower that blooms in late summer.  Since I created a lot of open ground I needed to help with the regrowth by adding some additional native species.  My main reference for plant selection was Native Plants for Wildlife andConservation Landscaping - Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  Plants that I have put in include American plum (Prunus americana), Tall Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata),  Elderberry (Sambucas canadensis), Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).  I also picked up some Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) since it is supposed to be deer resistant. 

White Foxglove Breadtongue are on the left and purple and
white Small's Beardtongue are at the right center of this view.
Both these flowers show well in part shade.

While flipping through the plant lists I realized that I had very little experience with Penstemons, which are very common in meadows.  With the spring native plant sales coming up, I added these to my list.  There are over 250 species of Penstemon, essentially all of which are native to North America, most of them from the western regions.  I focused on eastern species, particularly those indigenous to the mid-Atlantic. 

These are growing in part sun.  The leaves
are opposite and clasp the stem.
The most readily available eastern Penstemon is Foxglove Beardtongue, Penstemon digitalis.  It is a medium tall plant (2-5') with panicles of intensely white tubular flowers for about a month in late spring.  I grew it equally well in both full and part sun.  The flowers seem to be lasting longer in the sunny location. 

This close-up shows the fine hairs that cover the flowering parts.
 The flower is the perfect size for a bee to climb in.

This Eastern Beardtongue is not as leafy.  This specimen
has leaves with edges that roll inward (involute).
Eastern beardtongue, P.  laevigatus, was harder to find.  I eventually found it on-line from Enchanters Garden a nursery that carries many mid-Atlantic native species. Eastern Beardtongue is not a rare species, but it is not as showy as P. digitalis and I believe it is harder to cultivate.  Its range includes the mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states.  It tolerates sun to shade in moist to wet soils.  It has pale lavender to nearly white flowers and at 1-3.5' it is generally shorter than P. digitalis.  Its blooming period is reported to be earlier than P. digitalis, but mine bloomed a little later.  Maybe once these plants are well established the timing will change.

Here you can see the lines down the throat of the flower that act as nectar guides

The leaves of this forest species are broader than
the other two shown here and the stem is leafier. 

The last species that caught my attention was Small's Beardtongue, P. smallii. This plant grows in the mountainous regions of the Southeastern states.  It prefers partly sunny locations.  It is reported to be short lived so I will not dead head it to encourage it to set seed.  The purple flowers are intense and show up well in a shady location.  This is a long blooming species. For me it has been blooming for a month and it looks to go on for a little longer.  I got mine at a plant sale but it is also available from on-line native plant nurseries.

Here the beard on the flower's 'tongue' is very pronounced.

A general problem I'm having with my meadow replanting is deer browsing.  It seems that anything new got chewed on to some extent.  Even the coarse-leaved Wild Quinine got munched.  I have been spraying leaves with hot pepper spray, but the most effective means of protection is to put up a chicken wire cage around the plant.  This is particularly important for the woody plants, once they are large enough they should be safe.  The penstemons were nibbled then left along for a while.  It seems with the appearance of a new generation of fawns everything is being sampled again.