Beardtongue or penstemon is a genus of tube-shaped plants that produce a variety of colorful flowers similar in appearance to trumpets, bells or balloons. The plant is native to North America and East Asia and is distinguished by a sterile stamen that does not produce pollen. The plant’s beardtongue moniker is inspired by this infertile stamen that can be long enough to emerge from the flower itself giving the blossom the appearance of an open mouth with an obtruding hairy tongue. Beardtongue is typically a perennial or a shrub ranging between 3.9 inches (10 centimeters) and 9.8 feet (3 meters) tall.
Most varieties of beardtongue are hardy in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) zones six to nine although some such as the Hukser Red can be grown in USDA zone three. Some gardeners prefer to purchase and transplant a specific variety of beardtongue that produces a certain color, shape or size of blossom or that grows to a desired height. Beardtongue cultivars generally prefer to grow in a sunny place with well-drained soil and are rather drought tolerant once established.
Penstemon cultivars are generally very hardy and can be found throughout North American from Alaska down to Guatemala. Blossom colors include white, blue, purple, pink, yellow and red, and the flowers can help attract bees, hummingbirds and butterflies to a garden. Most beardtongue species bloom from May to June or July, but some varieties will bloom as late as November depending on the climate.
Many Native American tribes have traditionally used beardtongue for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. It was believed that chewing the roots could help relieve tooth and oral pain, and the root pulp was sometimes used to fill cavities. The root was also made into a salve and used to soothe rattlesnake bites, insect bites and sunburns and to heal wounds. The Najavo consumed penstemon as a diuretic while the Lakota made colored paint for moccasins from the plant. Beardtongue tea was drunk to alleviate constipation, stomach pain and kidney and lung disease.
The first scientific description of penstemon was published by John Mitchell in 1748 and additional species were discovered and developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There are currently more than 250 recognized beardtongue species that are preserved, cataloged and promoted by the American Penstemon Society founded in 1946. The majority of penstemon hybrids have been developed and cultivated in Europe despite the fact that the plant is native to North America.