Herbaceous Penstemon (Oreocharis)

The Herbaceous Penstemon (Oreocharis) is generally described as a perennial subshrub or forb/herb. This is native to the U.S. (United States) .

Uses of : Landscaping, Medicinal, Culinary, etc.

Grazing/rangeland: 'Cedar' Palmer’s penstemon (Penstemon palmeri) and 'Bandera' Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus) are the only released penstemons noted to have any forage value. All other varieties are considered fair to poor palatability and considered to be only incidental forage value. All species provide diversity to the seeded plant community.

Erosion control/reclamation: All species are mentioned for their value in mixes for erosion control and beautification values.

Wildlife: Penstemons are considered desirable forages for deer, antelope, and birds either as herbage or seed. They may also provide some cover for selected small bird species. They provide diversity to the plant community.

General Characteristics

General: Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae). Penstemon or beardtongue species are perennial forbs or sub-shrubs to shrubs with attractive flowers. They are short to long-lived.

Penstemons have opposite, entire, or toothed leaves. They have several stalked flowers or flower clusters that are borne in the axils of the upper leaves or leaflike bracts. The tubular corolla is strongly to distinctly two-lipped at the mouth with a two-lobed upper lip and a three-lobed lower lip. There are 4 anther-bearing (fertile) stamens and a single sterile stamen or staminodia that is often hairy at the tip. The fruit is a many-seeded capsule.

Herbaceous penstemon is a perennial herb to woody subshrub, 2 to 4 dm tall with well-developed basal leaves and stems arising from a woody caudex. Flowers blue to violet or purple with a densely golden-yellow bearded staminode. Cronquist et al. (1984) recognizes three varieties and provides a key.

Required Growing Conditions

Herbaceous penstemon is distributed throughout the western U.S. Penstemons are common to the western United States. Except for one minor species, the genus Penstemon does not occur naturally outside of North America. For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.

Cultivation and Care

Adaptation: Penstemons do best on well-drained soils. Most ecotypes do well on infertile, disturbed soils. They have excellent cold winter and drought tolerance. They will tolerate weakly saline to weakly acidic sites. They are usually found in open areas, but will tolerate semi-shaded conditions. They are not tolerant of fire, but are fire resistant due to leaves staying green with relatively high moisture content during the fire season.

Herbaceous penstemon is found on moderately moist to dry slopes, meadows, and streambanks from 1300 to 3300 m in elevation.

Planting: These species should be seeded with a drill or broadcast at a depth of 1/4 inch or less into a firm seedbed. Ideal seeding depth is 1/8 inch. Penstemons are not recommended for single species seeding. The full seeding rate (not recommended) for these forbs-shrubs is 1.5 to 3 pounds Pure Live Seed (PLS) per acre or 20 to 26 PLS per square foot (varies somewhat by species). When used as a component of a mix, adjust to percent of mix desired. For mined lands and other harsh critical areas, doubling the seeding rate component of penstemon is not required.

The best seeding results are obtained from seeding in very early spring (because of grass component of mix) on heavy to medium textured soils and in late fall on medium to light textured soils. Late summer (August - mid September) seeding is not recommended. Dormant fall seedings (preferred seeding period for penstemons) will pre-chill seed and reduce seed dormancy which is very strong in some species. Mulching, irrigation and weed control all benefit stand establishment. Seedling vigor is good, but not as good as most grasses. Germination may not occur until the second growing season. Flowering should not be expected until at least the second growing season.

Stands may require weed control measures during establishment. Because penstemons are broadleaf, use of 2,4-D is not recommended. Mow weeds at or prior to their bloom stage. Grasshoppers and other insects may also damage new stands and pesticides may be needed.

General Upkeep and Control

Growth of penstemons begins in early spring and flowers appear in May through July depending on species. Weed control and removal of very competitive species may improve chance of establishment. Damage from wildlife and rodents may occur and they may need to be controlled. Disease problems are minimal except under irrigation. Under irrigation fusarium wilt can be a problem.

Environmental Concerns: Penstemon species establish and spread slowly via seed distribution. They are not considered weedy or invasive species, but can spread into adjoining vegetative communities under ideal climatic and environmental conditions. They coexist with other native species and add biodiversity to those plant communities.

Seed Production Penstemons should be seeded in at least 36-inch rows at the rate of 2.5 pounds PLS per acre to allow mechanical weed control. The use of weed barrier material may be an alternative to allow closer spacing. They should be seeded in late fall or early winter unless seed is stratified under cool moist conditions. The Clearwater Selection of alpine penstemon does not require stratification. Transplants by dividing the base of older plants or from greenhouse starts can also be successfully used to establish seed fields.

Seed is generally harvested by hand stripping or by combine. Seed is mature when capsules are dry and seed is hard and dark in color. Flowering is indeterminate with mature capsules and flowers present at harvest period. Multiple harvest periods (by hand) may be necessary to maximize seed collection. Some seed will shatter once capsules open, but the capsule is upright and tends to hold seed very well. Seed can be separated from the capsule by use of a hammer mill or barley de-bearder followed by air screening. Cleaned seed should be allowed to dry and then stored in a cool dry area. An after-ripening period of 3 to 4 months is required. Seed retains viability for several years under these conditions.

Plant Basics
General Type Subshrub, Forb/herb
Growth Duration Perennial
Plant Nativity Native to U.S.

Source: USDA, NRCS, PLANTS Database, plants.usda.gov.
National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA