So you’re puttering up the highway from Oak View into Ojai. You pass the “No Trespas” (sic) sign then all of a sudden on your right you see a wall of brilliant red flowers.
Hovering off the sheer rock face, thrusting bold garnet trumpets into the valley sun, spewing pollen onto the roof of your new Yugo. Let’s meet this plant and its numerous local cousins.
Penstemons are a member of the Scrophulariaceae family, which was recently acquired in a hostile takeover by the Plantaginaceae syndicate. Really exciting stuff I assure you. It’s a colorful bunch that includes the monkeyflowers, snapdragons and Chinese houses. The name comes from the 5th (Penta) stamen which is prominent in most species and often hairy or bearded. There is even an American Penstemon Society. We have a number of local penstemons, here is your not-very-definitive guide:
David Keck was a botanist who did a lot of work with the genus and the lucky duck got his own genus which has two local representatives.
Keckiella cordifolia (cor-heart, folia=leaf) is having a monster year.
Usually an early summer bloomer, heart-leaf penstemon, as it is known, just couldn’t wait. You can find this beauty just about anywhere in the valley. It is viny and loves clambering up other shrubs.
Goes somewhat dormant in late summer but is among the first to put on new leaves in fall. Does great under oaks in gardens around here, too much sun can be a killer.
At higher altitudes cordifolia’s cousin Whorled-leaf penstemon takes over. You can see these up Howard’s Creek or Potrero John.
Keckiella antirrhinoides dominates chaparral Orange county and south. It is actually doing quite nicely in my yard for the last few years.
On to the actual penstemon genus The most common around here would be Centranthifolius, better known as Scarlet bugler.
Best places to see it is on the Rice Creek trail in cowtown, Matilija Canyon on the main trail and Potrero John. Don’t buy these at the nursery they never survive. I broadcast seeds and I have volunteers everywhere.
I am very excited I have managed to propagate Penstemon heterophyllus this year. These are pretty rare down here in the valley.
I know of only a few spots, namely Cozy Dell on the way up from 33. On the other hand they are literally ubiquitous once you head up to Rose Valley and beyond.
Penstemon spectabilis is actually the first one I fell in love with. As the species name hints at so delicately, this one is a show-stopper. Taller than 6 feet when in bloom with big juicy purple flowers.
I have heard that when you have this and Scarlet bugler in the same garden they will occasionally spawn a pink hybrid. Spectabilis doesn’t grow around here but go by Theodore Payne in the San Fernando Valley, it grows wild in the hills above the nursery and is probably blooming now.
Finally, no discussion of penstemon would be complete without the Margarita BOP (Beneath Our Porch). Developed “accidentally” by the folks over at Las Pilitas this penstemon is as close as we’ve got to a California native celebrity. The man who helped make it a statewide sensation, Bert Wilson, passed recently. It’s still blooming on the Highway 33 median in front of the Ojai Meadow Preserve. Does great in almost any setting as well as pots.
I’ll leave you with two teaser photos of our trip to Potrero John on Monday. These are brand new penstemons for my list, and one is pretty rare. Big batch ‘o pictures coming next week.