Does the name penstemon ring a bell? Penstemon digitalis is a lovely perennial plant, about three feet tall, that features elegant green (and sometimes purple-tinged) leaves and multiple white, bell-shaped flowers blooming in late spring and early summer. The flowers may last up to a month, a welcome sight at this time of year, when spring flowers are finished and summer ones not yet blooming.
A member of the snapdragon family, penstemon digitalis seems to be better known by part of its scientific name (penstemon) than by its common name, foxglove beardtongue. Peer into one of the flowers and you’ll see the reason for the common name: the stamens have tufts of short hairs, like tongues with a beard. The plant is native to most areas in Illinois, preferring prairies, open forest areas, savannas, pastures, and abandoned fields. It is resistant to disease and thrives in loamy soil, average moisture, and full or partial sun. Lengthy dry spells may cause the leaves to yellow and wilt. Plants are generally easy to grow from seeds and cuttings, and often reseed themselves.
The deep, tubular flowers of penstemon require long-tongued bees (such as honeybees and bumblebees) for pollination. Other types of bees, sphinx moths, and hummingbirds may be seen feeding at these flowers but probably don’t contribute much to pollination. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation considers the plant to be of special value to native bees. The seeds and leaves do not seem to be an attractive dining option for birds, deer, rabbits, or other plant-eating animals.
Other names for penstemon digitalis include foxglove penstemon, talus slope penstemon, and smooth penstemon. One source reports that all parts of the plant are poisonous, which may be one of the reasons it’s not a preferred food plant. Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest, by Charles Kane, says that penstemon has been used as a poultice for skin wounds, insect bites and rashes. HerbNET reports that penstemon has also been used to relieve toothache, stomachache, chest pains, fever and chills.
If you’d like some early bloomers that invite bees to your garden, consider penstemon digitalis.
Foxglove beardtongue: Penstemon digitalis